College and university presidents apparently are within their rights if they use state time and resources to speak out on three tax-limiting initiatives that will appear on the November ballot, according to an assistant state attorney general.
In a carefully worded opinion released Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Ralph Finlayson said the state Board of Regents probably did not violate any laws at its meeting in July when it passed a motion that university and college presidents had an "institutional responsibility" to speak out on the initiatives.However, the presidents should be careful not to intimidate or require anyone to vote one way or the other, the opinion said.
Supporters of the initiatives say it is wrong for public employees to spend taxpayer money and time to warn people about the consequences of tax-limitation. A spokesman for the supporters could not be reached Tuesday morning to specifically comment on Tuesday's opinion.
The initiatives would reduce state income and property taxes and would extend tax credits to parents whose children attend private schools. College and university presidents claim the state's education system would suffer greatly because of the loss of money.
Finlayson was careful to note there may be a law that prohibits the presidents from campaigning for or against the initiatives. He said he was asked to write the opinion as quickly as possible.
"My answer must be framed in terms of whether I have found any violation rather than whether there is any," he said. The opinion is informal and not legally binding.
The Board of Regents unanimously passed the motion at its meeting in Cedar City on July 22. The vote came after a plea from the chairman that the board had a responsibility to educate the public about the effects of the initiatives.
Finlayson said he expects people who favor the initiatives would be unhappy to know a college or university president is using public resources to fight the measures.
"Nevertheless, as a legal matter there is no violation of law unless some particular legal prohibition is breached," he said in the opinion.
One state law prohibits public officers and employees from using their positions to gain special privileges. Finlayson said some may argue the presidents are trying to preserve jobs and salaries, which could be defined as special privileges.
"However, there is a substantial argument that a basis, or the basis, for opposition to the initiatives was a bona fide belief, whether or not correct, that the initiatives would be harmful to the quality of education at the institutions of higher learning," he said. Such a belief would not be considered an attempt to secure special privileges.