COLUMBUS (TDB) -- Ohio's Democratic Atty. Gen. Marc Dann has issued an opinion that declares state law clearly bans any expenditure of "public funds to publish, distribute, or otherwise communicate information that supports or opposes the passage of a levy or bond issue . . ." Dann's office released the opinion Oct. 23 in response to a request from the prosecutor in Putnam County, who said the local health district wanted to solicit financial donations from townships in order to promote a campaign aimed at increasing property taxes. Dann said government entities are supposed to be neutral.
Officials are free to express opinions and campaign, but they can't use public money to push their views on voters.
His opinion comes at the same times as a major blow up in Hamilton County, where Republican Sheriff Simon Leis sent letters in the pay envelopes of 1,072 employees urging them to vote for a half-cent sales tax increase on Nov. 6. About $736 million would be raised for a new jail, drug treatment and rehab programs, and police patrols in high crime areas. Opponents of the tax hike said the sheriff had campaigned on the public dime. They sued in state court and lost, but obtained a settlement in federal court Wednesday that requires the sheriff to send anti-tax literature to county workers. The settlement appears to contradict Dann's view of Ohio law, which points out it is equally improper to use public facilities to distribute literature against the levy -- which is what the court settlement calls for.
Dann's opinion relies upon an Ohio statute, R.C. 9.03, that in so many words says the government must adhere to a policy of strict neutrality. The law states that public funds cannot be used on electioneering that "supports or opposes the nomination or election of a candidate for public office, the investigation, prosecution, or recall of a public official, or the passage of a levy or bond issue."
Dann said government agencies can disseminate information, but that it must simply explain the facts, not stray into promotion. An opinion issued by former Republican Attorney General Betty Montgomery explained the distinction.
"The general authority to expend funds and administer public programs, however, does not permit a public body or a public official to expend public funds specifically to attempt to persuade people to voter a particular way on a ballot issue -- that is, to say '"Vote Yes on Issue X.'
The full-text of Dann's 12-page opinion is here. And while it addresses Putnam County alone, it recaps what the rules are in Ohio.