OLYMPIA — Gas tax foes have filed a complaint with the state’s ethics watchdogs, saying Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald is illegally campaigning against them.
“The Fair Campaign Practices act is clear: taxpayer funds can’t be used to campaign for or against measures,” said Initiative 912 spokesman Brett Bader. The initiative would veto a 9.5-cent gas-tax increase approved last spring by state lawmakers.
Initiative volunteer Kay Regan on Friday filed complaints with the state Executive Ethics Board and Public Disclosure Commission. On its Web site, in mailings, at a town hall meeting and at booths at state fairs, she said, the Department of Transportation is improperly trying to discourage voters from supporting I-912.
Hogwash, said MacDonald.
“We’re doing what all agencies should do: talking to the public every day we can and every way we can about how the money gets spent,” he said. It’s not campaigning, he said. It’s telling people what they’re buying.
The group fighting I-912 said that the complaints were just an attempt to stir up some publicity two weeks before the election.
“This is a campaign that doesn’t have an awful lot of money, and they’re looking for ways to generate newspaper and TV coverage,” said No on 912 spokesman Mark Funk. “So they’re lashing out at Doug MacDonald.”
Regan’s complaint lists 80 alleged violations. Most consist of a single sentence contained within a two- to three-page description of local projects, such as: “If approved by voters in November, Washington State Initiative 912 would eliminate this project funding.”
In a presentation on rail lines, DOT staff listed seven “issues and challenges” for intercity passenger rail. No. 4 was “Initiative 912.”
In a mailing to Tacoma-area residents, DOT warned that “If approved by voters, Washington State Initiative 912 would repeal these gas taxes and eliminate a portion of Pierce County highway improvement funding.”
And more than 160 state DOT employees volunteered to do shifts at several county fairs, handing out free state maps, magnets and coloring books, and telling people about the projects that the gas tax increase will pay for, if it stands. The banner over the booth read “New gas tax builds projects!”
“There’s a line, and they’ve clearly crossed it repeatedly,” said Bader. “He (MacDonald) has done what no other agency head has done in the past: put his agency full-force on one side of a campaign.”
When asked whether state fair booths and mentions deep in the agency’s Web site constitute a full-court press by the agency – which has nearly 7,000 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal – Bader said, “Are you kidding me? This is all they’re talking and thinking about.”
The Public Disclosure Commission is reviewing what to do with the complaint, said spokeswoman Lori Anderson. The agency should have a decision by this afternoon, she said.
It’s true that state law prohibits state workers and officers from using public resources to support or oppose a ballot measure, said Executive Ethics Board Director Susan Harris. She said the board staff will look into the complaint and decide whether to dismiss the matter or consider penalties against MacDonald. If found in the wrong, he could have to pay up to $5,000 per violation.
That Executive Ethics Board decision is unlikely before Nov. 8, Election Day.
“It could take a couple of months, it could take a year,” Harris said.
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