The distribution of taxpayer money to fund special projects in each Merced County supervisor's district has been a hot-button issue in the campaign between Supervisor John Pedrozo and opponent Jim Pacheco.
Each supervisor receives $40,000 a year of "discretionary funds" for uses ranging from community projects to helping civic improvement organizations.
But Pacheco this week sent a scathing news release criticizing his opponent for listing his accomplishments, made possible through discretionary funds, on his campaign mailers and Web site.
The release was the latest salvo in a war of words between the candidates in what has turned out to be one of the season's most contentious local elections.
In the release, Pacheco likened Pedrozo's behavior to "hustling re-election with taxpayer money."
Pacheco then went further.
"Despite significant cuts to public safety in this year's budget, the Board of Supervisors voted to continue their practice of doling out up to $40,000 each year for pet projects in their districts."
Asked about his news release this week, Pacheco stood by it, saying discretionary funds give incumbents an unfair advantage. "Because anyone running against him (Pedrozo) couldn't fund these projects unless they took the money out of their own pockets," Pacheco said. "He's using taxpayer money, then putting these accomplishments on his Web site or mailers to help his campaign, and it's with the discretionary funds."
Pedrozo acknowledged using some of the discretionary money to help organizations in his district.
But did he do anything illegal? Merced County isn't the only county in California that allots discretionary funds to its Board of Supervisors. San Bernardino, Los Angeles, San Diego, Kern and Riverside counties are among those that have discretionary funds.
The Fair Political Practices Commission in California regulates campaign financing and spending as well as conflicts of interest. Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC enforcement division, said using discretionary funds to generate good will during election season "doesn't violate the Political Reform Act" but wouldn't comment on whether doing so constitutes an unfair advantage.
Is it all part of the politics game?
Keith Smith, assistant professor at the University of the Pacific, specializes in American government and is teaching a class about campaigns and elections this semester. He said the discretionary funds do provide an advantage, but it's all part of politics.
"If you're the challenger, it makes it harder to compete. But it's supposed to work that way for incumbents," Smith said. "Whether it's fair or not is beside the point. It's just part of what happens when people serve in government. There's no way to get rid of it because the person is doing their job. As an elected official you get to do these kinds of things."
Smith said the "incumbency advantage" can make a difference to voters on Election Day.
"It can make a difference if you care about the organizations he's helped out," Smith said. "Is it going to be the deciding factor? I don't know. It depends on a lot of different things. But it's better to have those positive associations than not."
Will how those dollars are used sway District 1 voters heading to the polls on Tuesday?
Filomena Sousa, principal at Livingston Middle School, said Pedrozo made a $500 allocation last year to the school's eighth-grade graduation after being approached by a parent.
"Making a $500 contribution doesn't mean his record is all good or all bad," Sousa said. "But for us being on the receiving end of something we were working for it certainly felt good. But I don't know that it would influence my voting."