By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Wednesday, February 10, the Senate Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Development Committee gave a favorable report to Senate Bill 86 to prevent school boards from using the people’s tax dollars to promote voters for ballot initiatives to raise taxes.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) was pleased with the passage of the bill. Zeigler said, “Good news. The State Senate committee favorably reported SB86 to stop school systems from using taxpayer funds in campaigns for tax increases. This was the first step to righting this wrong.”
This bill would prohibit public colleges and universities, local boards of education, and public schools from expending public funds, contributing public funds to entities, or using public property to advocate in favor of or against statewide and local ballot measures.
In 2015, the Baldwin County School Board wanted the public to vote for what were cumulatively a massive property tax increase package. Not only were paid employees of the systems including the superintendent, his staff, principals, faculty, and school properties used to promote a “Yes” vote on the measure; but the board appropriated over $250,000 to pay for a massive media propaganda blitz and coordinated campaign run by paid consultants. The referendum ultimately failed, but when opponents (who had to actually go out and raise their own money to get their competing message out) filed a complaint to demand that public dollars not be used for political purposes (already illegal under Alabama law), Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) issued an attorney general’s opinion that narrowly defined political purposes as being for or against an actual candidate thus the Baldwin County School Board’s action were legal. Subsequent litigation by Zeigler and local taxpayers was ineffective at getting the courts to step in and issue a ruling prohibiting the controversial practice. It is feared by some taxpayer advocates that the interpretation opens the door for public agencies to get even more involved in future referendums.
SB 86 was introduced by Senate Finance and Taxation Education Chairman Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) to fix that oversight in Alabama law.
The committee voted 11 to 0 to give a favorable report to SB86. The bill now awaits a vote from the full Senate.
Zeigler said, “We will report on what to do later as the bill goes before the entire Senate and then moves to a State House committee. Details later.”