March 15, 2023 - Editorial: County's $300,000 Prop M 'education' campaign is designed to sway a 'yes' vote

March 15, 2023 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) |  Author/Byline: the Editorial Board | Page: A10

Hours before last week's St. Louis County Council meeting, the county executive's office was busy lining up a company to handle a $300,000 contract for an educational campaign regarding the Proposition M marijuana sales tax question on the April 4 ballot. The dollar figure was strange, because the only Prop M bill pending before the council at the time was for a $150,000 education campaign. And even that hadn't been approved. Somehow, the county executive's office got the idea that the council would magically vote not just to approve the campaign but to double the expenditure to $300,000.

Sure enough, the council voted on March 7 to double the $150,000 proposal. Then the council voted to perfect the $300,000 bill. Then the council voted to finalize it — all in the span of three minutes. Not a word was spoken either against or for the measure, almost as if the result had been predetermined.

With this kind of efficiency in county governance, who needs democracy?

"The fix was clearly in," says Tom Sullivan, a University City stickler for officials' strict adherence to the law.

When the council and County Executive Sam Page's office talk about an educational campaign, what they mean is a thinly veiled attempt to win a "yes" vote for Prop M. The county is grappling with a $41 million budget hole, and the 3% marijuana sales tax could generate $3 million a year. Using public money to sway an election result is against state law.

Although the campaign purports to be a facts-only explanation of Prop M, voters should know this is hardly an unbiased presentation. The county wants a yes vote. Page's deputy chief of operations, Kyle Klemp, made the position fairly clear in an email exchange with Emily Engelke, of Elasticity, the company that received the no-bid contract. Engelke stated her assumption that cannabis users would be tax-averse and asked whether the campaign should work around them. Klemp responded, "Yes."

In other words, there's no intent to educate marijuana users about where their tax money would be going. The goal is to avoid opponents and aim the message specifically at people who don't use cannabis and don't care about a new user tax. The campaign envisions bombarding voters with mail, ads and press coverage.

Less than 48 hours after the March 7 council vote, Elasticity produced a multi-color, 10-page action plan. Prices were attached to each of 23 specific tasks the company would undertake. And, miraculously, the budget for those 23 tasks added up to exactly $300,000.

There's a good chance one or more state laws were bent to the breaking point in this process, which is why Sullivan wants the state Attorney General's office to intervene. Voters deserve to be skeptical because the county's goal isn't voter education. It's to generate cash to fill a gaping budget hole.