The San Diego County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA) has been considered by public opinion polls to be the leading public policy organization for over sixty years. Dr. Gary Gonsalves, M.D. , the founder of volunteer-led taxpayer advocacy group Stop Taxing Us claims that the SDCTA has an inherent conflict of interest, when analyzing and endorsing school bond issues, because of its member/funders (many of which are construction companies). Gonsalves stood alone, questioning this alleged cronysim but his voice was amplified today by San Diego’s largest media outlet, UT San Diego:
A taxpayer-watchdog group is accusing the larger San Diego County Taxpayers Association of having a too-cozy relationship with builders, and saying that may have influenced the association’s recent endorsement of two North County school bond measures.
“The true stink of the whole thing is the San Diego County Taxpayers Association has people, voting members of their board, who have contributed heavily to these campaigns,” said Gary Gonsalves, co-founder of Stop Taxing Us, which formed in 2007.
“If that’s not a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is,” he said about the idea that builders might support bond initiatives because such measures can funnel millions of dollars into the local construction industry.
Chris Cate, vice president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said Gonsalves’ accusation is unfounded.
“The Taxpayers Association has been serving taxpayers within the region for 67 years, and our record stands for itself,” Cate said. “Any effort to smear our integrity over accusations that our positions can be bought is laughable at best.”
Cate said no voting board member had a contract with North County districts for projects that would be funded with bond money, and the number of members who did donate to campaigns was a small fraction of the board.
“We need 60 percent of voting members to take a position on a ballot measure,” he said. “Mr. Gonsalves contends that because a couple of board members happen to be in the business of school construction, they can sway the other board members. And that’s just not accurate.”
Recent financial disclosure forms filed with the County Registrar of Voters reveal that developers have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to campaigns for general obligation bond measures that would fund facility improvements to local schools and college campuses.
While my colleague Dr Gonsalves, thinks cronysim is the driving force behind the SDCTA endorsement of Propositions AA and EE, I maintain that the SDCTA is either lacking the expertise to analyze bond issues (as it admitted with the Poway School District Capital Appreciation Bond fiasco) or suffers from the disease of familiarity.
Familiarity makes taxpayer advocacy hard. Labor unions and big businesses control the media message. Organizations, which constantly point out the obvious, that special interests have driven the State of California into bankruptcy, are oftentimes painted as extremists who seek to tear down government. Nothing could be farther from the truth but the rhetoric those special interests use can wear down even the most altruistic taxpayer advocate.
Familiarity isn’t evil but it can be a human condition. The SDCTA is now part of the power elite in this County. Were it to stand for the taxpayer, as its name suggests, it would have to call out the school boards members’ sins of robbing Peter to pay Paul more. Were it to stand for the taxpayer, it would present arguments like this:
Proposition AA is bond issue for technology upgrades, building maintenance, and new construction. We take no issue with the proposed financial instrument; it is a garden-variety, coupon-paying municipal bond, offered in a record-low interest rate environment. The timing for such an issuance is perfect. The use of funds confounds us because the proposed projects should have been completed in years past. Past school boards looted the maintenance budgets, to sweeten labor union contracts, and abdicated their ultimate duty to protect you, the taxpayer.
But you, the taxpayer knew that and tacitly approved of the malfeasance by re-electing the board members who played that financial shell game. Stated differently, taxpayers get the government for which they vote. The structure of the bond issue isn’t bad. Face it, the money is needed by the school district. If you, the taxpayer, is willing to absorb the small tax, rather than to confront the mischief of your school board members, you won’t get damaged too badly with this bond issue.
How well do you think that sort of endorsement would go with its member/funders? Probably not so well. While I am not ready to levy the accusatory charge of crony capitalism at the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, I will state that these bond endorsements, and concurrent support from its member/funders, violates the code that Caesar’s wife must be beyond reproach. The more the SDCTA protests those accusations and calls them “laughable”, the more the taxpayers will question if Caesar’s wife really is a prostitute.
DISCLOSURE: The author, Brian Brady, is a volunteer board member of Stop Taxing Us