Do those materials constitute education? Or advocacy?
Those who produced them say it’s the former.
Those who’ve seen them say it’s the latter. And they have the better argument.
Many of the materials in question were produced by MAVEN — the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network.
Items produced by MAVEN thus far include well-polished TV and radio ads, a full-color brochure mailed to thousands of local residents and a 30-minute infomercial that aired on Cobb TV23. The county, to its credit, eventually decided to pull the infomercial after complaints from residents.
“They had concerns and thought that it could be perceived as advocating,” county spokesman Robert Quigley told the MDJ.
Indeed, there is no other conclusion that could be drawn by a fair-minded observer. None of the promo materials offer any other solution other than passage of the TSPLOST referendum. Although they don’t actually say “Vote for TSPLOST,” their content is about as subtle as a Lady Gaga video.
“It’s pure advocacy,” Cobb GOP Chairman Joe Dendy told the MDJ. “For the general population who does not look deeply into things, it’s going to affect their vote. That’s politics, although it doesn’t mean it’s right.”
MAVEN is sitting on a $2.1 million war chest with which to pay for its advocacy. Some of that money was raised from the private sector, but its fund also includes $370,000 dumped in by the tax-funded Cumberland Community Improvement District and $200,000 from the similarly funded Town Center CID.
Those CIDs are self-taxing entities that raise revenues by levying a 5-mill property tax on all non-residential property within their boundaries. They can then spend those funds however they choose, as long as it’s within the law.
Yet they also leverage those tax dollars to get federal tax dollars — and lots of them.
The Cumberland CID, for example, has raised $100 million in local taxes during its 20-year history. But it has used those dollars to win approximately $500 million in federal dollars during that same period. We’ll bet you a NYC subway token that the riders there don’t know they’re helping pay for a lavish Atlanta ad campaign in favor of the TSPLOST.
IS IT LEGAL for the CIDs to use tax dollars to help underwrite such an ad campaign? Marietta lawyer Lynn Rainey, who represents Cobb’s CIDs (and numerous others), says yes, it is legal, because MAVEN is serving a “nonpartisan, factually neutral” service.
Yet, as many have noted, the MAVEN ads are not exactly objective.
“If you are interested in educating the public, you should present both sides of the issue,” said one such critic, East Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, who opposes the TSPLOST. “If you are going to only present one side or the other, I would say that group is an advocate.”
The issue has not been litigated in Georgia — yet. And even assuming such money can be used in that manner, who then “guards the chicken house”? Who decides where the line is between education and advocacy?
Standard practice during past SPLOST referendums has been for the governments and other entities who support passage to form a separate advocacy group — i.e., a “Friends of the Schools,” “Residents for Better Roads,” etc. — with a separate funding stream and separate leadership. But those pushing the TSPLOST are not bothering with such niceties and are using the CIDs as their piggybank.
Though some claim otherwise, there is little question that the CIDs are government agencies. They were created by the state Legislature at the behest of the Cobb Board of Commissioners, they raise taxes, they are subject to the Open Meetings and Open Records laws, and their meetings typically have a heavy presence of county staff. And there’s no question the county commission could rein in the CIDs if it desired to do so.
THERE’S NOTHING WRONG with the CIDs or county officials being enthusiastic over the TSPLOST. It’s appropriate to show strong leadership on such items. But such advocacy should be paid for with their own “dime,” not with tax dollars, even indirectly.
Cobb County just burned itself when this spring’s passage of a Sunday alcohol sales referendum was thrown out by a local judge for technical reasons, forcing a revote. Cobb and the other governments involved in the region’s TSPLOST need a second opinion from an authoritative legal source, not just someone with a vested interest in the outcome, on whether the CID’s contributions to MAVEN are legal. Moreover, that opinion needs to come, if at all possible, prior to the July 31 referendum, because it could really throw a wrench into things if it were to come afterward.