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The Line Between Education and Advocacy on SANDAG’s Tax Proposal

Issues raised by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association chief highlight a basic question facing SANDAG as it pursues a tax hike on the November ballot: Where does education end, and campaigning begin?

County voters in November will decide whether to increase the sales taxes by a half-cent to fund a host of regional projects, from expanding transportation options to repairing busted infrastructure to preserving open space and replenishing sand on local beaches.

San Diego County Taxpayers Association CEO Haney Hong is already angry that the regional planning agency is spending public money to convince voters it’s a good idea.

Hong’s issues highlight a basic question facing the agency as it pursues the tax hike on the November ballot: Where does education end, and campaigning begin?

In a June 8 letter to SANDAG’s board Hong criticized the agency for spending more than $200,000 on multiple rounds of public polling on the proposal to increase sales taxes to raise $18 billion over 40 years.

It’s fine to conduct one poll to determine if something’s feasible, Hong said. But repeated polling is better left to a campaign, not a public agency.

“Governance by polling is not what taxpayers bargain for, and this questionable spending will be taken into consideration by the SDCTA board of directors during its evaluation of any tax proposal put forward by SANDAG,” he wrote.

Gary Gallegos, executive director of SANDAG, said there’s no problem with repeated public polling to find out what voters want.

“This is one where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to go out to voters and find out what San Diego wants. If you don’t ask anyone what they want, you get hit for that too.”

After writing the letter, though, Hong noticed SANDAG had spent money to build a website filled with information on the proposal, and was buying Google ads to promote the site. Here’s a shot of the site:

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“SANDAG has crossed the line,” he said. “It has gone beyond educating voters. It’s in campaign mode, and it’s using taxpayer dollars to campaign for a sales tax increase.”

Gallegos said there indeed comes a time when promoting an agency’s proposal goes from education to advocacy, but that SANDAG’s measure isn’t anywhere close to that line yet.

The organization hasn’t even finalized the measure, he said.

SANDAG’s budget for the year gave the agency $500,000 for outreach, education and public input, all of which covers the sort of efforts they’ve made to introduce and explain the measure to residents.

Once the measure is finalized and sent to the county to be put on the ballot, expected by the end of July, Gallegos said SANDAG will still have a role leading up to the election.

A campaign would be formed to persuade voters to support the measure. But SANDAG staff will still go to public meetings, push out websites and information on social media and potentially distribute mail meant to inform voters what’s in the plan.

“We can’t tell them to vote for it, but we can tell them what’s in it,” he said.

Those education efforts would come out of the $500,000 already allocated, but Gallegos emphasized that it’s the board’s prerogative to amend the budget and make more money available for those efforts as the year unfolds.

But whether it’s appropriate to spend public money on voter outreach to raise taxes is a small question compared with whether the $18 billion plan is a good idea.

The Taxpayers Association has yet to take a stance on that bigger question. Hong said SANDAG’s public spending in support of the measure will factor into the group’s eventual decision.

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