Bill banning public money expenditures on ballot initiatives awaits final vote

Bill banning public money expenditures on ballot initiatives awaits final vote

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill pending final passage in the Alabama House would prevent state agencies, universities and local schools from spending tax dollars encouraging people to vote for or against tax increases or other ballot initiatives.

Senate Bill 313 was approved in a House committee on Wednesday and needs final passage on what might be the last day of this legislative session Thursday. 

The bill says “a public official or public employee may not expend any public funds from any source for activities to advocate in favor of or against a statewide or local ballot measure, even if the public official or public employee has determined that the expenditure serves a public purpose.”

“Why should the public tolerate the government using taxpayer dollars to weigh in on an issue that is supposed to be decided among the voters?” bill sponsor Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News.

Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, is handling the bill in the House.

“Basically, what the bill means is that you can’t use taxpayer money to try to raise taxes,” Kiel said in committee on Wednesday. “It does not prevent a person who is employed by a taxpayer-funded entity from advocating one way or another.” 

The bill says public employees can discuss ballot initiatives in their public positions and can advocate for or against them “in his or her capacity as a private citizen and while not engaged in official duties …”

If an official or employee violated the law, they would have to repay whatever public funds they used.

Orr for years has said state agencies and schools shouldn’t spend tax money trying to influence voters. He had a similar bill in 2016 that he said resulted from a situation where Athens City Schools used public resources to advocate for a tax increase for the system. That referendum failed, the Decatur Daily reported. 

State Auditor Jim Zeigler in 2015  filed a lawsuit against Baldwin County school officials over a property tax increase referendum. At the time, he said he wanted to prevent school boards across the state from spending tax dollars on campaigns, according to media reports.

A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge dismissed the suit, saying state law does not prohibit advocacy.

The court reasoned if it did, “the governor could not propose a tax increase or tax decrease to the Legislature and urge its approval, the attorney general could not propose and support a crime bill, the secretary of state could not propose and support changes to the state’s voting laws: All these common events would be barred under plaintiffs’ expansive reading of the statute.”

Orr’s bill does not prevent public officials or employees from speaking for or against ballot proposals.