By David Eggert, Associated Press
LANSING (AP) - Lawmakers' unexpected vote to block school districts and municipalities from informing the public about local ballot measures within two months of an election has left opponents pressuring Gov. Rick Snyder to veto the bill, which they say would keep voters in the dark about taxes and other issues.
On Dec. 16, in the final hours of the Legislature's last voting day of 2015, majority Republicans added the provision and others to campaign-finance legislation with no explanation and quickly passed the measure over objections from Democrats who said they were not told what was in it.
Caught off guard, groups representing school officials, cities, libraries and other local entities are lobbying the Republican governor for a veto. He has until Jan. 11 to decide.
Michigan law prohibits the use of public funds or resources to advocate for or against ballot questions, with exceptions for elected or appointed officials with policymaking responsibilities. But governments can spend money disseminating factual information about ballot issues.
The bill would impose a 60-day window before an election during which government money or resources could not be used to communicate with voters through TV and radio ads, mass mailings or robocalls. It effectively would leave it up to outside groups — formed by parent-teacher organizations or business interests, for instance — to spread the word about new tax requests, millage renewals, bond issues and other measures.
"We think it's the responsibility of school districts to get factual information out so that as a taxpayer I know exactly what I'm voting on, how much it will cost me, how it's going to be used. This really moves in the opposite of what school districts and public bodies should be doing with information," said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.
The legislation is supported by conservatives who say some informational campaigns are biased toward approving new taxes, and schools and municipalities have learned how to promote their cause without explicitly doing so.
"Members became aware of instances of abuse or bad actors locally and wanted to take action to prevent education dollars from being used to promote ballot questions," said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.
The bill would "put government on the same playing field as another advocate. If you want to advocate, register and do it via a campaign, not with the people's money," said Greg McNeilly, president of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a group with ties to the Amway co-founding DeVos family.
Critics of the measure counter that there are few examples of misused public funds for electioneering purposes and when mistakes occur, the state Bureau of Elections takes action. In 2014, the Traverse City Area Public Schools entered a conciliation agreement after the secretary of state alleged it misspent $24,800 in public money to expressly advocate for passage of a bond issue.
Local officials say the communities constantly send newsletters to residents and know what is permissible. They also contend that the legislation is poorly worded, may infringe on officials' free speech rights and would leave voters uneducated.
"Libraries not only provide free and equal access to information, they are responsible for sharing that information with their communities," said Michigan Libraries Association Executive Director Gail Madziar. "Informing voters about ballot issues impacting their libraries and schools is part of that responsibility."
Snyder has been noncommittal about the bill.
"It's very impactful and far-reaching legislation that's on his desk, and I would think important for a governor that's always pledged transparency and openness with the voters," Wigent said.
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