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Analysis: Electioneering is not a crime unless it’s on the taxpayers’ dime

State officials are warning school officials, in effect, not to turn into political organizers. That means educators shouldn't be telling students how to vote, but it sounds like some state officials don't even want educators helping students to become voters.

Austin ISD school buses at the terminal near John H. Reagan High School on July 26, 2017.

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The state’s attorney general is right about school officials and voting, but he’s leaving some Texans with an incorrect impression of what’s legal and what’s not.

Be nice: It could well be unintentional.

AG Ken Paxton, along with other Republican officeholders who are following in his wake, is strongly warning school officials against electioneering with public resources on public time.

What he’s not saying with nearly as much force is that it’s perfectly legal for schools to register their 18-year-old students to vote and even to take those new voters to the polls — as long as they don’t tell them how to vote when they get there.

It’s even legal for a school district to do that get-out-the-vote business with teachers and school board members and other education officials who have — on their own time, with their own resources — expressed opinions about what they hope voters will do.

This isn’t nearly as tricky or as risky as it sounds.

It’s a simple rule every reasonably paranoid politician in Texas should follow. If it’s politics, use your own money, your own equipment and do your work on your own time and not in government buildings.

There are some exceptions, but it’s easier to stick to that bright line. The rest of us have a work-life balance, or try to; politicians are supposed to keep plenty of room between their private political business and their official government business.

Crossing the line isn’t always fatal, and officeholders get away with minor infractions all the time. On the other hand, it’s particularly dangerous to cross the line when doing so might impinge on someone else’s electoral fortunes.

This is a good time to bring up the tension between the education community and some of the state’s most conservative lawmakers. In particular, there’s a fair amount of friction between the policymakers who want to hold the line on education spending and on local school property taxes and the school districts that are caught between rising student populations and the state’s decline in per-student spending.

Fast-growth school districts — many of them in suburban Texas where the GOP is extraordinarily strong — are in a particular box. Economies are booming, and people are moving in for jobs. The growth in student populations outstrips the districts’ infrastructure and staffing. It costs money to grow like that, and the schools complain the state’s formulas for public education spending bind them in ways that force property tax increases and increase their growing pains.

That’s a big fight. It provided the undertow for a lot of primary races, and it will do so in the May runoffs and in the general election in November.

That’s a long way of saying that Paxton’s call for more scrutiny on schools that want to bring voters to the polls has educators wondering whether he’s worried about illegal electioneering or about the intentions of the kids the schools want to transport to voting places.

Remember, though. Be nice. A smattering of school officials around Texas appear to have stepped over the foul line, using official Twitter accounts or email to express their political views. That’s not supposed to happen, and it looks that much worse if a superintendent is doing that while also telling the seniors to get on the government-owned bus that will take them to the polls.

As private citizens, elected officials can say whatever they want. On their own time and property and with people they’re paying with something other than public funds, they can participate in politics. And they can even use their official titles to describe themselves. Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Paxton don’t have to disclaim their state offices when they’re out politicking — they just have to be sure they’re not in state-owned cars with state staffers who are on the clock.

Paxton unfurled a nonbinding opinion on school buses and polling early this year at the request of Houston state Sen. Paul Bettencourt — the leader, in the upper chamber, of the effort to pass state laws that would hinder the growth of property taxes. He said the schools can’t transport the young voters unless there’s an educational purpose for doing so. Teaching people how to cast votes is pretty easy to explain as an educational enterprise, as long as you’re not also telling them who or what to vote for.

Still, the opinion — and all of the attention attendant to it — will scare some Texas school districts out of doing anything at all with elections, unless the law requires it.

Unless you’re being nice about it, you might conclude that that was the point all along.

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