Measure 0 debuts; political money abides

MEASURE O revenue gets underway and the matter of the law and ethics of accepting political contributions (Shutterstock).

Monday was not just the first day of a new month, or April Fool’s Day. It’s the kickoff time for tax revenue to flow from Measure O, the 1-cent sales levy approved by Garden Grove voters last fall.

It’s estimated that in the first year, the city should realize about $19 million in additional money, a figure that would increase as more businesses collecting sales tax come on line.

For most cities, sales tax is the principal source of revenue; what you pay in property tax is relatively small potatoes, especially if you are a long-time resident protected by Proposition 13.

One thing that’s generally not known is the sales tax you pay when you buy an automobile does not go to the city where you bought it, but to your city of residence. So if you buy a Camry at Toyota Place in Garden Grove but live in Buena Park, the sales tax portion devoted to cities goes to Buena Park (provided that’s where you register your vehicle).

So why are car dealerships prized by cities? Part of the reason is that they do more than sell cars; they also provide mechanical service which usually involves selling you motor oil, tires and other parts, and those are taxable.

Most cities want you to shop locally, but it’s more complicated than it looks.

When do contributions become something else?

One of the most sensitive – and arguably important – issues in politics today is that of campaign contributions. These days – even in local races– it takes a lot of the green stuff to get elected. Even the basics, such as a candidate’s statement in the voter handbook, a simple brochure or a few lawn signs can run into thousands of dollars.

A few election cycles ago one candidate raised and spent over $140,000 in a local mayor’s race, even though the post – largely ceremonial – paid only a few hundred dollars a month? Why do that?

The answer may be disappointing.  Some politicians run primarily for ego. Some do it for public service. Others do it for the benefits such as business contacts, inside information about new developments, and a chance for advancement into higher-paying, more lucrative connections.

But is taking a contribution from a developer when you are in a position to vote “yes” or “no” on a project which may be worth millions to that person unlawful or unethical?

As we understand the law, a city council member – or a candidate for such office – for example, must disclose the source of contributions. When in office, that person must “recuse” him- or herself from voting on a matter of personal financial interest. That means, for example, a land use decision on property the officeholder owns or has a financial interest in.

You can’t vote on an ordinance approving your new restaurant or if your restaurant is 50 feet from a proposed competitor. That’s a conflict of interest.

But if a developer – who has given you thousands of dollars in campaign contributions – has a project before you, that’s not considered a conflict. While many view that as ethically suspect, state law views a conflict only as those with a “foreseeable financial impact.” That doesn’t cover legally made and disclosed political contributions.

It’s difficult to imagine that politicians who receive big money from supporters won’t be persuaded favorably by those who gave them such largess. As long as it’s legal – and sometimes when it’s not – they’ll do it.

Those who are outraged by this can organize ballot measures or recruit candidates to change the law, locally and at other levels of government. At the very least, they can call out officeholders who vote on such matters, hoping to at least shame them into doing the right thing. But until the public gets sufficiently angry about the issue, we will continue to have a system by which in a society in which all men (and women) are equal, but some are quite a bit more equal than others.

Usually Reliable Sources is posted on alternate Wednesdays.



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