Your Taxes — Is it legal for CIDs to spend them to tout TSPLOST?
April 11, 2012 01:04 AM | 2449 views | 25 25 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
COBB AND OTHER METRO AREA VOTERS WILL DECIDE July 31 whether to approve a 1 percent sales tax for transportation improvements. We’re now being targeted by a wave of tax-funded promotional literature and videos regarding the referendum.

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.

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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.

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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.
Comments
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THE TRUTH
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April 13, 2012
From the title of this editorial and every word contained within represent a superior level of ignorance, the likes of which I have not seen, or willful indifference to the facts at hand and a deliberate attempt to decieve the readers of this paper. Either way, it is wrong and this paper, its great history and the citizens of the community it serves deserve better.
SG68
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April 14, 2012
@ THE TRUTH

I would say that you are the one who is exhibiting a "willful level of indifference " to the facts at hand.

I don't think the case for the MAVEN propaganda initiative being advocacy for the TIA could be clearer.

They are the deceivers!!

You just choose to ignore the obvious and live in a fantasy world.

Don't worry the damage is already done. MAVEN has accomplished what they set out to acheive.

The one sided propaganda is already out there and there is no way to undo that.

You don't have to waste your time trying to defend the indefensible.
JR in Mableton
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April 11, 2012
Here is a Plan B to try on for size.......the state can raise the gas tax $0.40 per gallon to raise the same amount of revenue......NO THANKS!!

I am voting YES to support the Regional Transportation Referendum, even if it means that I am simple-minded.
COBBCSI
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April 12, 2012
Title 18 Rico Act 1970: CID’s and MAVEN are money lauding MAVEN is only showing the positive which isn’t even the truth. They are also guilty of mail fraud as well the ads are totally misleading about traffic this whole scam is about light rail and high density development build it we will make them come to it. The CID’s are a government agency they collect taxes that are hidden from the buyer; when you buy something at the mall you are a stake holder the county even collects this money than they gives it back to the CID’s it is leveraged five to one most of the time. To the idiots’ that say they send their own money you are fools they spend our money the DISCO Bridge is prime example.
anonymous
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April 12, 2012
@ JR in Mableton

The TIA tax will represent a 16.6% (.01/.06) increase in the sales tax in Cobb County.

If the gasoline tax was increased by .40/gallon and the price/gallon is $3.90 (.40/3.90) what percentage increase does that represent?

JR in Mableton
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April 11, 2012
So, how does a "slush fund" go to support a specific list of projects with specific budgets? To the people whining that MAVEN is only presenting "positive" facts, give them some "negative" facts. Please refrain from the "slush fund", UN Agenda 21, tax trap arguments. Give valid, rational, logical, factual negatives. The slush fund argument is bogus. The tax trap argument is bogus. The UN Agenda 21 argument makes me want to go make a tin foil hat and hide in my basement. Where are the "negative" facts?? Also, what is the BETTER plan to address Atlanta's transportation issues. Anyone can be a critic. Provide solutions.
Thomas Palmer
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April 12, 2012
@JR in Mabelton: (FACT) GA Constitution does not permit legislature to create multi-county tax collection authority.(FACT) Transit in Atlanta metro area demands 75-80% taxpayer subsidies; why expand it.(FACT) Solutions to traffic congestion are not contained in proposed project list. Become totally familiar with Agenda 21. You owe it to yourself to become informed.(FACT)MARTA ridership declined last 10 years when population increased 20%.(FACT)Only 5% of population rides MARTA. MAVEN promotes economic development, not improved traffic flow.
URKiddingRight?
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April 12, 2012
@JR in Mableton

You keep missing the point.

We should not have to force the MAVEN organization to provide both sides of the issue.

That should be integral to their stated goal of "educating" the voters about the TIA referendum.

Their advocacy is not so much revealed by what they saying and distributing, but by what they are NOT saying.

Don't be so naive as to think there is only one side to this issue.

And don't be so blatantly partisan as to suggest that those that want the whole story should be responsible for doing that.
SG68
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April 11, 2012
The CID's have been gradually expanding their powers since the first one, the Cumberland CID, was created back in the 80's.

Little by little they have strayed from their original intent which was the pure financing of badly needed transportation projects in their specifically designated districts to all kinds of farfetched and far ranging projects and intiatives.

As long as their "creative" project financing is restricted to their own back yard using their own resources then I don't have a problem with it.

I also don't have a problem with them using those dollars to recapture federal and state tax dollars and bring them back into our community for our benefit.

However, when they, under false pretenses, start covertly advocating to create a $7 BILLION slush fund that has little or no benefit to Cobb County that's where the line needs to be drawn.

The Metro Area CID's, led by our own Cumberland and Town Center CID's, seem to have gotten a little big for their britches.

They have become so enamored with themselves they are reaching well beyond their original purpose.

They have gone from being self interested, self taxing districts to becoming just another out of control governmental entity trying to take advantage of their political and financial power to reach into taxpayer pocketbooks.

It's time to reel them in and set them back on the right course.

Second Opinion
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April 11, 2012
I believe Mr. Lynn Rainey indicated that was done over a year before, prior to setting up the two groups. However, rather than slugging that out in court, those who are against the SPLOST can vote no and those who chose to become better educated,r anther than just read excerpts often incorrectly stated, can vote yes, as my family and I will.
Smyrna Oldie
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April 11, 2012
???????????????????????????; makes no sense!
CID Credibility Lost
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April 11, 2012
Our CIDs are squandering a proud history by persisting in this obvious "advocacy" deception.

Their ads are plainly promoting TSPLOST, and to insist that they are not is destroying the credibility of the CID management.

If the CIDS think the public will buy this smoke screen, what else are they misleading us about? Can they be trusted on anything?

Why should we believe them on TSPLOST if they play games on this issue?

irked
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April 11, 2012
Thank you for this.
rjsnh
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April 11, 2012
The simple, legal answer is NO. But, they can do so if they are not challenged. The DA has a responsibility to protect citizens in just such cases of abuse. But, on which side of the law does he find himself is not such a simple question to answer.
simple legal ?
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April 11, 2012
What citizens are you trying to protect? How exactly have they been harmed? What responsibility is it of the Cobb D.A. in this matter?
URKiddingRight?
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April 11, 2012
@I don't get it

It is painfully obvious you don't get it.

Transportation Investment Act, TSPLOST, Regional Transportation Referendum or Two Starbucks a Week.

Call it what you want, but it is still amounts to $7 billion rip off of the taxpayers of the Metro Atlanta area.

And MAVEN is complicit in misleading and misinforming the public about what it is supposed to accomplish.

Sorry you think I am erroneous in my opinion, but I think that you are naive in your acceptance of the half truths that are being spoon fed to you by a biased organization masquerading as an objective voter education initiative.

All anybody, which you characterize as the opposition, wants is the other side of the coin to be revealed.



I don't get it
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April 11, 2012
@Ur Kidding: The Transportation Investment Act of 2010 passed in 2010. I believe you are referring to the Regional Transportation Referendum? Just another example of the misinformation you have. Again, if MAVEN's presentation is one sided, what's the other side? Your opinion? The $7B "slush fund" will go to specific projects unanimously approved by the regional roundtable. The SPLOST will cost the tax payers about two Starbucks per week, from my calculations. I'm in. And I thank the effort, no matter who it is funded by, that brought to light the facts from the ARC that are to this day undisputed by any of the opposition. You're welcome to your opinion (I just wish it were better informed), but I take serious issue with you trying to get anything defeated by erroneously calling to question the ethics of others when you have no facts whatsoever to back it up.
URKiddingRight?
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April 11, 2012
@ simply legal

The point is that the MAVEN campaign will, in fact, allow my personal tax money and my neighbors to be used to fund the $7 Billion slush fund being promoted by MAVEN's one sided presentation, if the TIA passes.

It's not so much the funds being spent on the MAVEN campaign that are so onerous, but what those questionable expenditures will lead to.

simple legal ?
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April 11, 2012
@WestCobber Are you simple minded, are you easily influenced by advertising or clever editorials even? Riddle me this, Is your tax money, the money you personally pay in property tax in any way being used to fund these efforts? How about any of your neighbors tax money? If you say yes to the last question, you may also say yes to the first question because you are being duped. You are the simple minded who are being tricked by a clever and misleading editorial that does not give you, a voter, the correct information. You are being lied to and you are lapping it up like kitten to warm milk. Enjoy.
I don't get it
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April 11, 2012
And way to go "WestCobber" in flinging an insult at someone just because he/she disagrees with you. Pretty typical of the comments on this site. There are a lot of "simple minded" people who look down their noses at anyone who has a different opinion of them. Doesn't make it illegal.
I don't get it
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April 11, 2012
Isn't education defined as presenting facts? If information presented point to the fact that we need a resolution to our traffic problem, how does that make it less of a fact? What other side needs to be presented? Is it the job of MAVEN to come up with another solution just so there are more than one "side" to educate the public on? This makes no sense.
WestCobber
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April 11, 2012
@simple legal (maybe it should be simple minded) - the point rjsnh is tyring to make is that this group is using taxpayer money to advocate and push an issue, which they obviously approve. The abuse is that there are a lot of simple minded people who will vote on an issue based just on what they have seen on TV - and these ads are telling them if they don't vote for TSPLOT they are doomed. I believe the DA does have a duty here, since it is use of taxpayer money to promote an outcome in an election where there are two sides, but only one heard. It would be much the same as the Cobb County Commission or City Council using money from property taxes to promote a single candidate. Since taxpayers have no say so in how this money is spent, they need a central empowered individual to do so for them. This is nothing but advocacy advertising by one group which has the money and is buying the results.
rjsnh
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April 12, 2012
WestCobber articulated the misuse of public funds quite well AND the responsibility of the DA to investigate and bring criminal charges. Arguing that using these funds in a campaign to "explain" why we should vote for the TSPLOST is a slippery slope. Could they also be used in a campaign to "explain" why we need to expand the powers of the CID? Could they be used in a campaign to "explain" to voters why a particular candidate should be elected or defeated? The fact of the matter is using public funds, and these ARE public funds, in a campaign, and it IS a campaign, to "EXPLAIN" why voters should support the TSPLOST is advocacy and that is, under the law, ILLEGAL. The only legal question is whether the DA will choose to look the other way.
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