Lawmakers would be doing the right thing by closing a loophole that allows state offices to spend tax dollars on public service announcements without prior authorization.
A proposed amendment to the pending state budget bill would require State Controlling Board approval of advertising purchased by a state governmental entity when the total amount of an ad campaign exceeds $50,000.
The proposal came about after it was discovered Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel’s office spent $1.84 million on TV ads to boost an investment program for disabled Ohioans. The 30-second public-service announcements featured 18-year-old Down syndrome self-advocate Anne Gerhardt of Cincinnati, Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, and Mandel.
Gerhardt and her family were leading advocates for passage of the federal legislation that created STABLE accounts, a new way for families with special needs children to set money aside for housing, education and disability-related costs.
The PSAs ran more than 2,000 times between mid-June and Dec. 4. Three days after the ad campaign ended, Mandel announced his candidacy for the 2018 U.S. Senate race against Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. While not illegal, some said the ads, which appeared statewide, gave Mandel an inappropriate head start because he appeared in the ads.
The task of administering the STABLE accounts program was given to the state treasurer in 2015, and lawmakers approved $2 million for operations and promotions.
Mandel’s office paid for the public service announcements in various media markets around the state but always in increments of less than $50,000, exempting it from an existing requirement that spending of over $50,000 must be approved by the Controlling Board.
Mandel’s office has said it was transparent about the ad campaign, and has defended it as being necessary to raise awareness of the investment program.
He was not the first state official to make use of the loophole. But he should be the last. The governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state, among others, have all appeared in public service annoucements in recent years. A personal appearance of someone running for office in an ad isn’t the biggest problem, however. Dodging external review of tax dollar expenditures is.
Whenever the final version of the state budget bill gets approved, lawmakers should make sure the Mandel amendment is included.
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