Pierce Transit has spent $149,000 to spread the word about a tax measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that would help shore up the agency’s budget.
Opponents say that’s $149,000 too much, but even they concede that the agency appears to be playing by the rules.
State law prohibits Pierce Transit from promoting Proposition 1, which would raise sales tax within the agency’s boundaries by three-tenths of one percent. But voter education is allowed.
“They can’t spend money on anything that results in support or opposition to the ballot measure,” state Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said about Pierce Transit’s restrictions. “They can do some education; fair and balanced information to their constituencies. But again, it has to be objective, and not done in such a way as to sway the voters in one way or another.”
Proposition 1 opponents don’t allege a legal violation, but they do say the agency is painting a doom-and-gloom picture that isn’t objective.
“What really bothers me is they have information out there that they’re going to cut service 53 percent if they don’t approve Prop 1,” said Nick Sherwood of the Reject Proposition 1 campaign. “There’s a lot of fear from riders that they’re going to be cut out, and that’s not their only option. That’s simply the only option they’re laying out on the table for riders.”
Pierce Transit officials say they know what it costs to operate the agency and what level of service they’ll be able to provide with either funding scenario.
“We try to explain how we are financed, where the money goes,” spokesman Lars Erickson said about information provided to voters by Pierce Transit. “We make sure we put the revenue side of it on there and the expenditure side on there to tell the story of how we’re funded and what we do.”
The agency spent $149,000 to send fact sheets and postcards to registered voters about the proposition, as well as to advertise informational open houses.
It had the mailing reviewed by the PDC before distributing it, a service the commission offers to help agencies make sure they’re in compliance with rules.
The commission had two suggestions for Pierce Transit: that it not translate the fact sheet into more languages than it does for any other public information, and that it remove the date ballots must be postmarked from the mailings – unless election dates are a norm in the agency’s communications.
Pierce Transit had already translated the mailing into only the five languages that it commonly uses for public information, and the agency decided to keep the ballot deadline on the fact sheet, Erickson said. Officials have included an election date in other communications and didn’t feel it was out of the ordinary, he said.
Public officials have to be careful about using taxpayer dollars to communicate about ballot measures. In 2005, PDC staff warned then-Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg that there was evidence he broke state law by using public money to send likely voters mailers about a proposed sales tax increase for public safety services. The commission ultimately dismissed the complaints against him because the actions occurred during a time when the PDC believed it was unable to enforce the law or advise Ladenburg about the content of the mailers.
The campaign against Proposition 1 says it’s not concerned with the letter of the law, but that Pierce Transit is distributing information at all. They’d rather that job be left to the Restore Transit Now campaign, which openly supports the proposition and has sent its own mailer.
“(Pierce Transit is) constantly beating the drum that if you don’t vote yes, these are all the bad things that are going to happen,” Sherwood said. “Whether it breaks the law or not is another story.”