Crist Signs Bill to Ban Local Governments from Urging Votes on Ballot Issues
Local governments or people acting on their behalf will now be banned from spending public money on political ads advocating a vote for or against issues on the ballot.
Gov. Charlie Crist signed legislation (SB 216) on Wednesday outlawing such “electioneering” communications using local tax dollars. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, does say that elected officials are still allowed to express their opinion “on any issue at any time,” as long as nobody spends any government money on that communication.
It also says that “factual information” is exempt – so a city could spend money on a brochure that offers “factual” information about an upcoming vote, though opponents of the bill say it's not clear who would define whether such information is factual.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era of government accountability, as this will ensure that governments will not be telling taxpayers how to vote, but rather allow voters to be the final arbiter in determining what is good policy for our communities,” Justice said in a statement. “Gone are the days of unjust and irresponsible campaign spending from our government.”
The measure takes effect July 1.
Local governments had asked Crist to veto the bill, saying it was overly broad and would lead to unintended consequences, where local officials might unwittingly advocate against something – say while on their employers' time – and be accused of violating the law.
“Someone is going to write a letter to the newspaper or put something in a newsletter about a ballot issue and somebody's going to call them on it and complain to the Ethics Commission,” said Rebecca O'Hara, a lobbyist with the Florida League of Cities.
“Even for unknowing violations of this law ... completely innocent messups - they're going get hauled before the Elections Commission and have to hire a lawyer to defend them,” O'Hara said.
Last month, League of Cities Executive Director Mike Sittig wrote to Crist urging him to veto the legislation, saying that it amounts to a gag order on local government officials.
Sitting took on the factual information exemption, noting that the nature of such language might be in the eye of the beholder. Would it be factual to say that a particular amendment “will cost taxpayers money?” he asked. “What if statements made prior to an election turn out to be wrong after the election for unforeseen circumstances?” Sittig asked.
“Anyone with a vendetta against any public official or employee, elected or not, could use the vague provisions of this legislation to wreak havoc,” Sittig said in the veto request.
Local officials also complained during the session that the Legislature wasn't applying the same standard to state officials. So Florida government officials conceivably could spend money on behalf of a ballot issue, for example, and if local officials were on the other side, they couldn't legally spend money to counter the state's electioneering.
Crist signed the bill along with several others on Wednesday without comment.