No one who is younger than 40 will remember the late legendary radio commentator Paul Harvey. Every afternoon, he would begin his daily radio program by promising to tell us “the rest of the story.”
Thanks to a provision slipped into a budget trailer bill last week, Californians now know “the rest of the story” on a questionable voter outreach contract awarded last year during the “fog” of the Covid-19 crisis.
With the 2020 presidential campaign taking place during a global pandemic, there was much discussion over adapting longstanding voting practices to safeguard the public health while also ensuring the people’s voices were heard in an important election.
California and other states shifted much of last year’s voting process from a traditional, in person voting at polling places to absentee ballots. First by executive order, and later by legislative action when the legality of the Governor’s executive powers was challenged in court, California moved to send an unsolicited absentee ballot to every registered voter in the state in 2020.
It is common for the California Secretary of State’s office to conduct large-scale voter outreach campaigns to encourage as many Californians to vote as possible. What is not common is that the voter outreach contractor would also be a consultant for the Democratic presidential ticket.
“Under the contract, SKD Knickerbocker, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs firm, will help run the ‘Vote Safe California’ campaign, which will urge people to vote during the pandemic.,” wrote the Associated Press in August when the contract was awarded.
“Anita Dunn, the firm’s managing director, is a senior strategist for Biden’s presidential campaign. The firm’s work for Biden is highlighted on its website, with a headline saying the company is ‘proud to be a part of Team Biden,’” the AP also noted.
Then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla, now a U.S. Senator, says he personally played no role in awarding SKD Knickerbocker the contract.
Then things got interesting. State Controller Betty Yee refused to pay the $35 million bill. According to Calmatters, the dispute was “over whether Padilla’s office had the budgetary authority to pay for a $35 million contract.”
“The secretary of state’s office maintained that it did have budgetary authority. The controller’s office, which approves payments, maintained that it did not,” Calmatters noted.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association also filed a lawsuit over the contract, noting in a press release that, “the contract is unsupported by any line item in the state budget.”
Since then, the firm’s invoices to the state for its Vote Safe California television, radio, and social media campaigns have gone unpaid.
Between November and February, there’s been a lot of huffing and puffing between the Newsom administration, the Secretary of State’s office, and the Controller’s office over paying the bill.
Now, the Legislature is poised to weigh in on behalf of paying the contract. According to the Sacramento Bee, “an amendment to a state budget bill introduced by Democrats on Wednesday would allow for the state to pay for the voter outreach by using money earmarked to help counties conduct last year’s election.” Through a tweak of legislative language and a couple of fund shifts, Yee would seemingly now have the authority to pay the bill once the new legislation is signed into law.
Republican Senators Pat Bates and Jim Nielsen cried foul over the move.
“Changing state law retroactively to pay for a sweetheart deal with a partisan political firm is an abuse of power,” they said in a statement. “Taxpayers should not have to pay for the shady deal that was executed by the previous Secretary of State.”
The whole affair makes clear one thing – imagine how much time, money, and effort could have been saved had the Secretary of State’s office awarded this contract in an honest, transparent manner and to a non-partisan firm as it should have done in the first place.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and director of PRI’s Sacramento office.