Legislative battles best fought without one side having publicly financed edge

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: March 26, 2012
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IN the mid-1990s, a private association used taxpayer money to campaign against a referendum that could have resulted in less taxpayer money going to members of the association.

Strike that.

The money the Oklahoma State School Boards Association used to fight State Question 669 was no longer taxpayer money. It had left the building.

A somewhat similar situation is playing out with the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust and the battle to give local governments more control of where people can smoke. TSET uses money diverted from the general fund, in part to support policies that mirror those in specific legislation. TSET is thus using public funds — albeit indirectly — to help get legislation passed.

The diversion of taxpayer money in both instances is legal; in the second instance, it may in fact be what voters want done. After all, they asked the state to divert 75 percent of the money from the 1999 tobacco settlement into an endowment from which earnings are targeted for health care programs.

In the broadest sense, advertising in support of anti-tobacco initiatives qualifies. Had voters not approved a constitutional amendment in 2000, the tobacco settlement money would continue to flow into the general fund and finance non-health programs such as social services, roads and education.

The School Boards Association is funded with dues paid by school districts, which in turn are funded by taxpayers. Once the dues leave the building, though, they're no longer public funds; the association is free to use them in ways a school district could not — which it did in opposing a property tax cap initiative.

Former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, a key player in the tobacco settlement, took us to task for describing TSET's advertising budget as the expenditure of “taxpayer” funds. Instead, he notes, the money goes directly from tobacco companies to the endowment, which uses it to do battle with the tobacco companies.

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by The Oklahoman Editorial Board
The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Gary Pierson, President and CEO of The Oklahoma Publishing Company; Christopher P. Reen, president and publisher of The Oklahoman; Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and vice president of news; Christy Gaylord...
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