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California lawmakers OK payment for voter outreach campaign

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California officials have figured out a way to pay for a controversial $35 million voter outreach contract signed last year with a firm linked to then-candidate Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

State Controller Betty Yee had refused to pay the firm last year, saying the secretary of state’s office signed the contract without budget authority. The Democratic-led Legislature on Monday approved a state budget amendment aimed at allowing the payment.

Former Secretary of State Alex Padilla, now a Democratic U.S. senator, chose the Washington, D.C.-based firm SKDK last August to run a voter education campaign for the state’s November election, when all voters were given a mail ballot. The deal drew criticism because SKDK’s managing director, Anita Dunn, was a senior strategist for Biden’s campaign.

At the time, the secretary of state’s office said Padilla had no role in selecting the vendor.

The contract was for the firm to create a campaign called “Vote Safe California” aimed at reminding people to participate in the election even during the pandemic. Part of the goal was to do outreach to people who may be voting by mail for the first time.

The contract became a persistent headache, with Yee refusing to pay and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association suing to negate it.

The bill now headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom pays for it by drawing from other budget items meant to help local governments with voter outreach and education, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party, said the payment raised ethics issues and “should be investigated.” She noted the firm, SKDK, had a role assisting Democrats in a number of California races.

“Imagine the outcry if Democrats found out the state awarded a $35 million contract under the guise of ‘Vote Safe California’ to an organization with strong conservative ties. The hypocrisy is astounding — Democrats must be held accountable for their actions,” she said in a statement.

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