Billboard May Not Be In Violation of State Law

Hand of a person casting a vote into the ballot box during elections

A local anti-tax crusader has come into compliance with campaign disclosure laws on billboards he says he personally paid for. Though, the way Wyoming statutes are written, it’s not entirely clear he was violating any laws.

Bill Fortner paid for billboards that read, “You’re not friend of coal if you vote for the 1% tax.”

The billboards, which are electronic and cycle through a number of messages, originally had just that sentence in white lettering on a red background. Sometime this week, “Paid for By Bill Fortner” was added to the advertisement.

The optional 1-percent tax is a general purpose tax, which county residents vote on every four years. The tax supports streets and sidewalks, parks, sewer, water, and social services, among other things.

Fortner led a charge four years ago to oppose the tax, which he says harms the coal industry. While coal is one of the most heavily taxed commodities in the United States, the local optional tax accounts for a very small portion of coal companies’ total tax burden.

The bulk of their taxes are federal and state taxes on mineral production and lease fees.

Will Dinneen, public information and communications officer with the Wyoming Secretary of State, said a message that is promoting a certain action on an existing ballot measure may trigger campaign finance disclosure laws.

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“That would fall under electioneering,” Dinneen explained.

An billboard on Skyline Drive and Westover encourages people to vote against the Optional 1-Percent Tax.

This would be different from a group promoting a certain viewpoint on an issue. Fortner’s advertisements are asking for a specific voting action on a candidate or ballot measure.

Most advertisements that fall under this category would need a “paid for” line on the advertisement clearly identifying the person or individuals paying for an advertisement.

While Wyoming statutes are clear regarding “paid for” disclosures on advertisements paid for by groups, committees, and candidates, it’s not entirely clear if this would apply to individuals who pay for advertisements with their own money.

Dinneen said how the laws are interpreted on a county-level issue would be a question for the county clerk and county attorney.

Campbell County Clerk Susan Saunders said Wyoming law gets a bit murky when it comes to electronic billboards. State statutes specifically exempt some items from disclosure requirements, such as bumper stickers, pens, pencils, buttons, rulers—what is often called schwag in marketing lingo.

There’s no specific mention of electronic billboards. However, Saunders said to the best of her knowledge, the electronic billboards would count as a paid advertisement. These advertisements are required to post a “paid for” line, with some exceptions.

A campaign guide available on the Secretary of State’s website gives a series of examples of advertisements that would require the “paid for” line. One example that does not require the disclosure is a hypothetical scenario in which a good friend of a candidate buys an ad supporting that candidate. That ad would not need a “paid for” line on the ad.

Fortner said he was coordinating with other volunteers to promote the message, including handing out brochures and going door-to-door. But he said the advertisements were paid for entirely out of his own pocket.

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Dinneen said, on a state level, this would probably fall under the independent expenditure rules and require a “paid for” line, even if a single individual paid for the advertisement.

“The law is generally construed to understand that ‘paid for by’ should be on the independent expenditure and campaign materials,” Dinneen stated. “Transparency should be expected.”

Dinneen said the requirements on a county level could vary from those of the state’s. It’s really up to the county clerk and county attorney to decide what is required in this instance.

Saunders said a number of advertisements on the billboards are not complying with the “paid for” disclosure requirements, and in some cases, these are clear-cut violations.

Saunders said the law doesn’t provide specific penalties for non-compliance. A violation would be a misdemeanor and Wyoming statutes have general penalties for these types of offenses, which are not more than six months in county jail or a fine of not more than $1000.

The state of Wyoming charges 4 percent tax on most purchases throughout the state. Counties can then enact their own sales taxes, which can be for specific purposes, economic development, or general purposes—depending on the type of tax that’s enacted.

Originally from New Mexico, Killough began his career writing freelance for a weekly magazine in Albuquerque while completing his undergraduate degree. In addition to reporting on uranium mining in western New Mexico, he spent three years reporting in western North Dakota during the height of the oil boom. He can be reached at kevin@county17.com or 701-641-6603.