A North Texas school district budgeted hundreds of thousands in taxpayer money on a political campaign to help sway voters to support its massive $737 million bond. While existing laws regulating the use of taxpayer money in political campaigns are weak, evidence suggests the district may have violated the law.
State lawmakers have so far refused to strengthen the election code regulating local government campaigns, despite calls from conservatives to prohibit taxpayer dollars from funding them.
New reports revealed that Lewisville ISD budgeted approximately $280,000 for their pro-bond campaign, which began in July of 2016 and continued all the way until the May 2017 election.
A large portion of the budget was earmarked for public relations spending – such as banners at footballs games – to promote the positive perception of the district in general. But $62,000 was budgeted for three direct mail campaigns targeted 35,000 voters in the district. Another $43,000 was budgeted on political consulting fees, to Rebecca Cowan of Caelen Communications.
Open records requests show LISD spent more than was budgeted ($66,920) on direct mail. This suggests that total spending for the overall campaign is unknown, but could obviously have exceeded $280,000.
Cowen, a well-known political consultant, was reportedly paid to manage the entire pro-bond campaign and was the architect of its budget. At least, according to her agreement with the district.
It raises several questions: If LISD was not engaged in political advocacy designed to sway voters – in violation of state statute – why did the district hire a political consultant? If they weren’t trying to illegally sway voters, why did they target direct mail to drop during early voting, and explicitly to help “get out the vote” (GOTV)?
According to news reports, Cowen was also involved in several other bond campaigns. They include Grapevine-Colleyville ISD’s $125 million bond, Hurst Euless Bedford’s $136 million bond, Frisco ISD’s massive $775 million bond in 2014, Arlington ISD’s $660 million proposition, and two bonds in 2016—most notably Coppell ISD’s $249 million debt deal, which passed by only 20 votes.
In the aforementioned campaigns, it’s unclear whether Cowen was paid by the pro-bond PACs that are primarily funded by the contractors who then profit off the related bond projects or – as in LISD’s case – with taxpayer money paid directly by the school districts.
Cowen did, however, manage the political campaign of Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams. Almost immediately after being elected, Williams became an ardent supporter of the controversial Rangers Stadium proposition, which news reports found may cost taxpayers more than $1.6 billion.
To the surprise of no one, Cowen was hired by the pro-stadium side to manage their campaign, which raised $1.8 million to promote the stadium proposition to voters. Williams, Cowen, and their allies famously misled Arlington voters when they claimed the proposition would result in “no new taxes,” despite the ballot proposition language asking voters to authorize five taxes.
It’s time for lawmakers to strengthen the law and prohibit local governments from using tax dollars to promote their propositions to voters. Taxpayers don’t stand much of a chance if their own money is being used against them.