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Gov. Snyder signs campaign finance reform bill into law

Local leaders express disdain for bill language

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published January 12, 2016

 Gov. Rick Snyder

Gov. Rick Snyder

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LANSING — Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill Jan. 6 that disallows local communities from publicly discussing ballot or millage proposals 60 days prior to an election.

Snyder said he interpreted Senate Bill 571, which was introduced by state Sen. Mike Kowall and was the last bill to pass the Legislature in 2015, in a different manner than local officials.

“This legislation includes many important campaign finance reforms that protect the integrity of our election process,” Snyder said. “I understand there is confusion about how the bill impacts the use of public resources to disseminate factual information prior to an election. This provision needs to be clarified and I am working with my partners in the Legislature on a follow-up bill to address these concerns.”

A letter from Snyder explaining his position stated that the bill updates campaign finance rules in numerous ways through the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, including the payment and transfer of political action committee contributions and how the office of the Secretary of State will be required to post all campaign finance complaints and rulings to its website within a 45-day period.

It provides clarity to the existing prohibition on the use of public funds to either advocate or demonize ballot questions, Snyder said.

The letter also stated that the intent of the governor’s signing was to prohibit the use of advertisement-style mass communications — including radio, TV, mass mailing or prerecorded messages — using taxpayer dollars.

“The new language only applies when local governmental entities use taxpayer resources to distribute mass communications concerning ballot questions,” Snyder said. “As I interpret this language, it is intended to prohibit communications that are plain attempts to influence voters without using words like ‘vote for’ or ‘support.’

“With this clarified prohibition, there remain many other mechanisms, including private entities, associations and political action committees to encourage support or opposition to a ballot proposal that do not rely on public resources.”

The governor said the bill also does not hinder a public official’s free speech as instituted through First Amendment rights, saying policy-making officials can still express their own views. Public bodies can also use their own facilities to host debates or town halls to deliberate ballot questions.

Snyder publicly asked the Legislature to address concerns by local governmental entities and schools on how the language in SB 571 is interpreted, saying, “I am calling on the Legislature to enact new legislation to address those concerns, and clarify that the new language does not impact the expression of personal views by a public official, the use of resources or facilities in the ordinary course of business, and that it is intended only to prohibit the use of targeted, advertisement-style mass communications that are reasonably interpreted as an attempt to influence the electorate using taxpayer dollars.”

Clinton Township Supervisor Bob Cannon, who chaired Macomb Area Communities for Regional Opportunities, or MACRO, in 2015, sent a letter on behalf of the group to Snyder on Dec. 21.

The noted language in the bill that prompted the letter is located in Section 57, which states: “A public body or a person acting for a public body shall not use or authorize the use of funds, personnel, office space, computer hardware or software, property, stationery, postage, vehicles, equipment, supplies, or other public resources to make a contribution or expenditure or provide volunteer personal services that are excluded from the definition of contribution. … The prohibition under this subsection includes, but is not limited to, using or authorizing the use of public resources to establish or administer a payroll deduction plan to directly or indirectly collect or deliver a contribution to, or make an expenditure for, a committee.”

MACRO includes members of the following municipalities: Clinton Township, Eastpointe, Utica, Warren, Sterling Heights, Shelby Township, New Baltimore, Roseville, Harrison Township and Mount Clemens. Other members include the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, or SEMCOG, and MSU Extension.

The MACRO letter stated: “As local governments, we are the first line of communication and the most easily accessible to residents in terms of staff and elected officials. Leading up to important ballot questions, the public relies on our transparent and thorough communication to help them make decisions. Politics aside, local government administrations work hard to provide voters with as many facts and information related to proposed legislation. By taking away local governments’ ability to communicate with residents, we are prohibiting the flow of information and blocking transparency in government.   

“This new language in Section 57 of Senate Bill 571 undoubtedly prevents our local government administration from doing their jobs and is arguably an infringement on the freedom of speech.”

Cannon elaborated by saying that any local community that is, for example, seeking a police, fire or school millage, cannot inform the public of the exact ballot language.

Following Snyder’s decision to sign SB 571 into law, Cannon said he was disappointed.

“It takes away the educational portion of any millage request in a community, and what the state has done unfairly — they’ve limited the way local communities and schools can increase their revenues as the economy improves, through Proposal A and Headlee (Amendment). Now they’re telling us we can’t even tell our residents what we’re voting on.”

Cannon said all the communities in MACRO agree that it’s wrong to use funds to sway decisions in a certain way in a “yes” or “no” vote, but assured that all citizens should be informed of ballot proposals that would impact their respective communities.

“It came from people in Lansing who have no idea what they’re doing,” said Cannon, prior to the bill being signed into law. “It doesn’t matter who proposed it; it’s just a bad idea. Lansing continues to take the local ability of communities and schools to make revenue, but during this economic recovery they continue to balance the books based on all the locals.”

Cannon said Snyder’s interpretation is that he’s not limiting anything going on and will encourage the Legislature to address concerns; that he can still let people know what’s going on.

“But that’s not the way it’s written,” Cannon said, adding that he’s not exactly sure how the language will be disseminated moving forward.

Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan supported MACRO’s position, saying the bill places an additional burden on city offices in her city due to small staffing. She said it makes municipalities hold more public hearings and send out notices in the newspaper beyond what the state treasury sends out.It could also change how the city registers voters, and could impact or eliminate absentee voter regulations that are currently in place.

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