Lawmaker: Pubic Money Shouldn’t Be Used to Influence Voters

Rotunda in the Alabama Capitol. (Source: Todd Stacy, Alabama Daily News)

A state senator says he is considering legislation to prevent government agencies from spending state money to promote ballot referendums and proposed constitutional amendments.

“We shouldn’t use public money to influence voters’ decisions,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News on Thursday. “The government doesn’t need to put its finger on the scale, attempting to influence decisions that the voters will need to make.”

Orr’s comments were prompted by a Legislative Contract Review Committee meeting on Thursday and information the committee received from the Alabama Department of Conservation about a proposed $200,000 public relations contract. The committee was told that the contract was to inform the public about a 2022 constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, would let the state borrow $80 million to improve parks.

The committee can’t kill contracts, but it can delay them for up to 45 days. It moved to delay Conservation’s Thursday.

Later Thursday afternoon, Ed Poolos, the deputy commissioner of conservation, told Alabama Daily News that lawmakers had been given inaccurate information by the department in a summary of the contract and during Thursday’s meeting.

“This contract is not a public relations contract with anything to do with the bond issue or the constitutional amendment,” Poolos said. “This is a re-upping of a contract we’ve had in place with (a public relations firm) for eight years.”

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. Source: Alabama Legislature

Poolos said the firm helps with special events advertising or getting the word out when a natural disaster closes or alters a park’s operations.

The constitutional amendment will be on the May 24, 2022, ballot and Poolos said the firm may help formulate messaging to media about the proposed bond, “but that is not the intent of this contract.”

He said the department would reach out to lawmakers about the inaccurate information.

Members of the Senate and House overwhelmingly supported the constitutional amendment legislation. The $80 million would be used to expand and improve campgrounds and recreational areas.

The proposed constitutional amendment would also allow for another $5 million to be spent on improvements and maintenance at historical sites and parks under the jurisdiction of the Alabama Historical Commission.

Orr in the Senate voted for the funding bill.

“Nonetheless, we don’t need to use government money to try to influence the decisions of voters. That’s a slippery slope, regardless of how meritorious the cause may be.”

This isn’t the first time Orr has argued public money shouldn’t be spent to influence voters. In 2017, he sponsored legislation to keep institutions of higher education and local schools from expending “any public funds from any source, make any contributions from public funds to any entity, or use public property, to advocate for electors to vote in favor of or against a statewide or local ballot measure, even if it has been determined that the expenditure serves a public purpose.”

That bill cleared the Senate but died without a vote in the House.

Orr on Thursday evening said he’s considering a new bill related to public money and ballot initiatives.

“We still should not allow public funds to be used to lobby voters to vote a certain way,” he said.

More Info Sought on Mental Health Contract

The contract review committee held to get more information about an Alabama Department of Mental Health contract with a Connecticut-Based company that processes paperwork for the department’s clients in an independent living program. There are 325 clients in the program and the contract is to increase to more than $8 million.

“That’s more than $24,000 per (client) to do paperwork,” Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile said. “That’s a lot of money.”

Committee chairman Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said the state’s General Fund and education budgets next year include more money for mental health services. He said lawmakers want to know it’s reaching those it’s intended to help.

“What I want to be assured of is that we’re not just padding the pockets of the paper pushers,” Garrett said.