The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission is “taking a closer look” after the City of Olympia distributed a mailer urging residents to vote against a statewide ballot measure, in possible violation of state rules.
The city mailer urges readers to “Vote NO on Initiative 976,” the car-tab-cutting measure on this fall’s general election ballot. I-976 would reduce many vehicle license fees to $30 and repeal local government authority to charge car-tab fees as part of taxing areas known as transportation benefit districts.
More than 50 cities across the state have established transportation benefit districts that assess the fees. Olympia charges a $40 car-tab fee to fund paving and other projects. The Olympia City Council this month approved a resolution expressing opposition to the initiative, saying it would result in a funding loss of $1.5 million a year. Other cities, including Seattle, have passed similar resolutions.
The mailer says the car-tab fee “makes up nearly half the city’s street reconstruction and repair budget” and several times says “vote no.” It includes the city’s Post Office box address.
“Pavement conditions would suffer and planned projects would not be completed,” the mailer says.
Olympia spokeswoman Kellie Purce Braseth confirmed the city sent the mailer to about 15,000 households at a cost of $7,423 from the city’s general fund.
State law bars the use of public resources for promoting or opposing ballot measures except in certain cases. Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) guidelines allow local governments “an objective and fair presentation of the facts for each ballot measure.”
“Being objective is about being factual, which the mailer is,” Braseth said in an email. “Objectively, the passage of I-976 will mean the loss of funds needed to maintain and repair our City streets.”
The PDC received a complaint about the mailer Tuesday. PDC spokeswoman Kim Bradford said in a statement that PDC staff are “concerned about some aspects of [the mailer], including the ‘Vote No’ language.”
I-976 sponsor Tim Eyman blasted the mailer Tuesday, calling it “blatantly illegal.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government called the City of Olympia’s defense “baloney.”
“This mailer is absolutely, positively, without a doubt, a blatant violation” of state law, Nixon said in an email.
Stating “vote no” is “express advocacy,” Nixon added later. “The PDC should throw the book at them and their attorney should be fired.”