Campaign Mail on the Taxpayer’s Dime?

July 17, 2022

One benefit extended to all members of the North Carolina legislature, like many others, is an “allowance” for the cost of postage for official correspondence. State lawmakers may use this allowance to send official communications through the mail at taxpayer expense to constituents, supporters or anyone else. By statute, paid mailings are strictly limited to official communications only – political or campaign communications are prohibited. But this is a famously hazy boundary. Smart politicians know that any direct voter contact is highly valuable – especially when they aren’t the ones paying for it.

New evidence shows that under the direction of State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, Republicans in the North Carolina Senate have been misusing these taxpayer funds to unfairly pay for Republican politicians’ communications. New documents, obtained by Carolina Forward’s Research Team from public records requests, show that Phil Berger’s Senate Pro Tem office has directed 84% of the State Senate’s entire spending on official communications postage – $272,297 in all – exclusively to its Republican members. This includes $42,412 (13%) for Berger personally – more than twice more than any other member.

Readers can access the full spreadsheet with data from the North Carolina General Assembly here. Figures include the last two biennums, 2019-2020 and 2021-2022, through April 30th, 2022.

By custom, all state lawmakers are given a biannual allowance for official postal communications. (This year, it was $2,275.) To go above that limit, they must submit a request to the office of the Senate Pro Tem, Phil Berger. This evidence strongly suggests that Berger’s office is approving excess postage costs in a discriminatorily partisan manner.

Though it is technically illegal to send political campaign mail with taxpayer funds, policing the boundary between that and “legitimate,” official communication is famously difficult. There are rules that lawmakers may not solicit campaign funds or invite supporters to campaign events in their official capacity, for example. But they can advertise to – or “educate,” depending on one’s perspective – voters in their district what they are doing. For state lawmakers, basic name recognition is one of the biggest challenges they face, so opportunities to raise their profile among voters in their district at taxpayer expense is highly attractive.

Needless to say, using taxpayer funds to promote candidates of one political party over the other is blatantly unethical. But as the legislature is virtually the only corner of state government that is completely unaudited by any independent agency, there is essentially no oversight of its leaders’ budgeting choices. Save one, of course – the ballot box.

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