Dec. 23 2015 09:26 AM

Local governments, schools want veto of bill limiting info on ballot initiatives

School districts and local government organizations are seething after discovering a late-night change made to state legislation that unless vetoed will ban officials from addressing a millage or bonding initiative within two months before Election Day.

Among numerous technical changes slipped into an election-related bill is one that is driving Lansing School Board President Peter Spadefore and other school officials to call on Gov. Rick Snyder to veto SB 571. The governor has not indicated whether he will sign the bill.

Once the Senate officially delivers the bill to Snyder, he has 14 days to sign it. He can also veto it or "pocket veto" it by not signing it. The Senate had not sent it to him by Tuesday.

It says a public body or a person representing a public body cannot use public funds or resources for communication relating to a local ballot question within 60 days before the scheduled election. A violation could cost an individual up to $1,000 and a community or district up to $20,000.

The Lansing School District is putting up a major $120 million building renovation bonding proposal in May. Sufficiently educating voters on where the money would be going would be significantly hampered by the new restriction.

"For Lansing, this is going to have a huge impact in how we articulate the facts on this proposal," he said. "This really puts us behind the eight ball."

That language was not in any prior versions of the bill and seemed to come out of left field for the local governments and school districts affected, many of which rely on millages or bonding proposals to fund improvements or even basic operations.

Current law already says public entities may not use public funds to advocate one way or another for local ballot questions voters are asked to decide. Spadefore said his district always runs communications through their attorneys to make sure they are not using wording that could be construed as advocating for a ballot question.

Those representing local public bodies are concerned the new language outlined in the bill would prevent them from bringing up the subject at all in the key weeks before elections — the time when voters would likely have the most questions.

The bill, in theory, could prevent officials from expressing their views on local public access broadcasts of city council meetings or debates at risk, said Chris Hackbarth of the Michigan Municipal League.

It could also create inconsistent treatment between communications with residents on statewide and local ballot questions, he continued.

"This language puts an undue burden on communities and their residents, blocking access to unbiased, objective communication on the local issues that matter most to the residents in every community in Michigan," he said.

Some have argued the current law allows for some districts to get away with more than simple voter information communications, however.

Michigan Capitol Confidential, a publication backed by free-market advocacy think tank Mackinac Center, has reported several instances of alleged abuse of the law that went beyond voter information and into advocacy for the ballot question. A recent report referred to SB 571 as a ban on "taxpayer funded electioneering."

"Although the state's campaign finance law already prohibits municipalities and school districts from expressly advocating a 'yes' or 'no' vote on a particular ballot measure, many of them find ways to influence voters without crossing the forbidden 'express advocacy' line," the publication's most recent report on the issue reads.

For instance, the Lansing School District sent out a flier shortly before a 2010 bond millage that read "Preserve Our Heritage. Fund Our Future," according to Capitol Confidential. In Saline, the high school posted a video with a school official directly asking for support.

Elections attorney Eric Doster said these problems show how locals and school districts are using the law to avoid using expressed advocacy while painting "doom and gloom" scenarios about the impact of a "no" vote with taxpayer money.

"It's akin to issue ads," said Doster. "They can say if this issue fails, your children will be turned out on the street."

Under SB 571, schools, libraries or local officials wanting to advocate for new money can still donate privately to an independent committee and do it without public resources being involved, he said.

But Scott Koenigknecht, superintendent of Ingham Intermediate School District, said he's never heard of an intentional issue of abuse in his or any other school district in the state.

"If there are individual instances of abuse, the state could deal with the individual district that went too far," he said. "This prohibits districts from even putting information out there, which I believe they have a right to do."

Jennifer Smith of the Michigan Association of School Boards said it's unclear whether a superintendent could even answer a call from a concerned voter if it was related to a ballot question. That lack of ability for districts and boards to connect with residents and answer questions could have a real impact on whether future asks from voters are successful, she said.

"We're already banned from saying vote yes or no. All we can do is educate," she said. "It's ironic that this came in the guise of more information and having more informed voters. This seems to go against that rhetoric — we want more informed voters, but we're keeping them from being informed."