Leaders rally against new law restricting ballot info

Jan 22, 2016 Issues: Government Reform
Macomb County Exec. Mark Hackel, Roseville Fire Sgt. Jon Tovarez, firefighter/medics Gerald Kempf & Jared Zygmontowicz, Batt. Chief Scott Bala, Fire Chief Michael Holland, Rep. Sandy Levin, Batt. Chief Todd Adams, Roseville Mayor Robert Taylor.
Leaders rally against new law restricting ballot info
 

Roseville — Area officials and school leaders rallied Thursday in opposition to a new law they argue exposes critical ballot proposals and millages to the risk of unfair political attacks.

Provisions were added to a new campaign finance law, approved in December after a major late-night revision on the floor of the state House of Representatives, that opponents say prohibit school districts, local governments and libraries from using taxpayer resources to distribute information about ballot proposals within 60 days of an election.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said he’s “thoroughly offended” by essentially being told through the legislation “as an elected official to keep my mouth shut for 60 days,” adding he’s willing to go to jail over the issue.

“I want to be the first to defy this law,” said Hackel, who noted his prior frustrations over the court-imposed gag order during mediation between Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties and Detroit over the Great Lakes Water Authority.

Hackel was joined by U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, and more than 70 city managers, mayors and school leaders from communities in Oakland and Macomb counties to speak out against the legislation.

“This provision was passed in a cloak of darkness. We’re here to shine the light on it,” said Levin, noting the Roseville fire station was selected as the site for Thursday’s news conference in part because city voters are being asked to approve a 20-year millage renewal for Advanced Life Support.

Besides Roseville, about a dozen school districts and local governments have ballot measures going before voters in the election March 8, which is less than 60 days away.

“We’re going to turn up so much heat that they are going to repeal the gag order in the state of Michigan,” Levin said.

The bill has drawn scrutiny from municipal and school officials who have likened the law to placing a gag order on their ability to communicate information to voters about property tax votes, school bond issues and other ballot questions.

Someone who knowingly violates the law is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 or imprisonment for up to one year, or both, if the violator is an individual, according to an analysis of the bill.

If the violator is not an individual, the penalty is a maximum fine of $20,000 or a fine equal to the amount of the improper contribution or expenditure, whichever is greater.

Hackel said he’s instructed his county’s legal team to evaluate a potential legal challenge to the law. But in the meantime, he says he’ll be standing by those working to inform the public in violation of the law.

“If you are going to send someone to jail, I hope that I’m the first,” he said. “I’m absolutely stunned that this is actual law.”

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts noted nothing is more fundamental than freedom of speech.

“This is a gag order. It limits free speech. It limits exchange of free ideas,” he said. “It’s an assault on free speech. It is wrong.”

The legislation contained two controversial provisions that emerged in post-passage analysis:

  • A public body can’t use taxpayer money or resources for “communication by means of radio, television, mass mailing, or prerecorded telephone message if that communication references a local ballot question” within 60 days of a local election, according to the Association of School Boards.
  • Republicans say unions would be blocked from using payroll deductions to receive money from members for the political causes they are backing.

But supporters counter the law strengthened rules prohibiting the use of public money for political advocacy.

Gov. Rick Snyder previously asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to make clarifications to the law that makes clear it is not meant to stifle free speech by local government and school officials, or prevent them from distributing basic election information.

Anna Heaton, a press secretary for Snyder, said Thursday in an email the governor did ask lawmakers for legislation to clarify aspects of the law and “appreciates their quick action.”

This month, legislators introduced three separate bills that seek to either amend or repeal the new law.

“If any of the introduced bills move through the legislative process the governor will take time to review them,” Heaton wrote.