WSAZ Investigates | Campaigning With Taxpayer Dollars

WSAZ Investigates | Campaigning With Taxpayer Dollars
Published: Oct. 31, 2022 at 6:29 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy have been traveling the state for weeks, while state Senate leaders do interviews and send press releases -- all about why you should vote for or against Amendment Two.

If passed, the amendment would give lawmakers the ability to remove certain taxes that help fund local government, including the car tax and other taxes on business.

The governor and local officials say -- without money from those taxes -- there could cuts to emergency and other services.

Senate leaders contend cutting those taxes will bring jobs -- and the state would make up for any lost money to local government.

Both sides -- using taxpayer dollars -- to sway your vote.

It recently happened in South Charleston.

“A vote for Amendment Two means you give up your guaranteed revenue to the West Virginia Legislature forevermore,” Hardy told attendees.

The Revenue Secretary said those words in front of a taxpayer-funded fire truck and next to a sign encouraging residents to vote ‘No.’

That’s just one of more than 20 stops on the governor’s statewide campaign tour against Amendment Two -- using local government resources along the way.

Similar action has been taken in support of the measure.

On a smaller scale, Senate President Craig Blair has used his taxpayer-funded communications office to send press releases with headlines that dispute the governor’s claims and make the case for passage of Amendment Two.

But WSAZ wanted to know, is it ethical?

WSAZ Investigative/Political Reporter Curtis Johnson turned to the state Ethics Commission, and while it denied his requested to speak on camera, staff pointed him to an opinion on this very issue.

The Aug. 4, 2022, opinion relied on two opinions from about 10 years ago -- both written by Jonathan Turak, then the commission’s acting chairperson.

No longer with the Ethics Commission, Johnson turned to Turak for perspective.

“As a taxpayer, of course, you know, you don’t want to see your taxes being used to advocate one public policy position or another, especially if you have a different opinion as to what that public policy should be,” Turak said.

But the Moundsville, W.Va., attorney said the answer is more complex.

For instance, the Aug. 4 ethics opinion gave school systems broad authority to use taxpayer resources to advocate for or against Amendment Four, a referendum limited to the independence of the state Board of Education.

But the very same ethics opinion determined county school systems cannot use taxpayer dollars to advocate for or against Amendment Two.

The reason -- passage or failure of Amendment Two could directly impact money available to pay school salaries, whereas Amendment Four pertained only to policy.

The opinion was limited to county school systems, but funding associated with Amendment Two also impacts cities and counties.

So Johnson asked Turak about use of the South Charleston fire truck, as well as the use of a Kanawha County ambulance and sheriff’s cruiser at an earlier event.

“So would the concern about school salaries also extend to cities and counties,” Johnson asked.

“Yes,” Turak replied. “To the extend that, that opinion could be applied to those situations, absolutely.”

“But there’s a lot of gray in this, is that right?” Johnson asked.

“Sometimes it’s not quite so clear,” Turak explained. “That’s what I would say. But yes, it’s a balancing. Oftentimes, it’s a balancing. How direct can you make that connection.”

That connection is not as direct with state resources, which leads Turak to believe the actions of the governor and Senate leaders would be permissible by the state Ethics Act.

But even then, Turak says the Aug. 4 opinion puts every agency on notice -- be cautious with spending.