Should public schools require students to be vaccinated as a condition of attendance? Do you support legalizing marijuana? Should churches be required to perform same-sex marriages?
These are just some of the questions state Senator Marty Knollenberg (R) has asked in the three mailings he sent this year to constituents in the state's 13th Senate District (Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester, Rochester Hills, Royal Oak, Troy, Berkley, Clawson) at a cost of $14,818 for printing and postage. The mailings, which are ultimately funded by taxpayers, are often thinly veiled promotional materials that come in the form of "legislative updates" or "resource guides" with detachable surveys that may be sent back.
Legislators who utilize the state's version of the congressional franking privilege say bulk mailings are a good way to keep in touch with constituents, while others suggest the privilege is simply a form of free promotion.
"We do mailings about two or three times a year," said state Rep. Mike McCready (R), who represents the state's 40th District (Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield). "We did one on Proposition 1. That was an informational brochure where we tried to show both sides. We have a spring/summer mailer that went to households of people 50 and older. It showed all the different festivals in the state. A lot of people really liked that."
The mailer, entitled "Michigan Family Fun and Festival Guide 2015," includes a two-page spread of various festivals throughout the state through October. If you like pumpkins, you're in luck. There are four official pumpkin festivals this October, but only one chili cook off.
"We are working on another. We will probably do one before the end of the year," said McCready, who spent $6,768 on postage for the mailer. "It comes out of our office budget – $102,000 – which pays for our two office staff, phones and supplies. Those (mailings) have to be non-political and information based."
Unlike congressional franking privileges, which allows individual legislators to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds on bulk mailings, the amount Michigan legislators may spend on bulk mailings is limited by their individual office allotments. That's about $102,000 for Republican House members and $99,000 for Democrats (majority members and officers receive more). That allotment is used to pay for staff, travel, phone, publications, printing, postage and other expenses.
Mailings from House members are requested through the House Business Office, while senators utilize the Senate Business Office. Each office also is tasked with reviewing mailings to ensure content meets the requirements set forth by each respective chamber. Once requests are approved, they are printed and shipped by the Legislative Services Bureau.
"House guidelines are approved by the Speaker and administered by the House Business Office," said Tim Bowlin, director of the House Business Office. "The guidelines are available to members and staff on our internal website. As you will see in the policy, the House Business Office reviews all printed newsletters and electronic items for mass distribution prior to release. The policy also outlines the annual deadlines for the legislative term."
All printing orders go through the Legislative Services Bureau (LSB). Printing requests can be made through either the House or Senate Business Office or directly to the LSB.
The House policy includes extensive rules and regulations on the types of materials that may be sent, while Senate members must meet the same policy regulations. And while there are rules outlining how close to an election materials may be mailed, both policies serve a basic purpose to ensure that mailings aren't overly political or partisan.
"It has changed over the years because of social media, but there have always been standards," said Bill Ballenger, former state representative and founder of Inside Michigan Politics. "They can't go and say and send out whatever they want. Over the years there has been controversy about whether it’s too political or campaign literature."
Ballenger said there was much written about franking prior to the electronic information age, but it seems to have become less of an area of concern, perhaps because of the spread of technology. However, it could be a real area of concern that has simply become lost in the shuffle of information.
"In the meantime, social media has taken over," he said. "There are electronic press releases and other ways that legislators can get in contact with their constituents. You are the first call in years on the subject. People have gone to sleep, but it's worth looking at, and not just when there's a scandal developing. Some (legislators) seem to spend their max quota, while others are not spending. There's an interesting story there."
Legislators from Oakland County spent more than $126,000 in postage from September 2014 through August 2015. That includes routine and bulk mail postage, according to figures provided by the House and Senate business offices, with 14 House districts and five Senate districts in the county. Bulk mailings through August 2015 range from zero for some legislators, and as much as $22,295 by state Senator Jim Marleau (R-Bloomfield Township), who in August led the amount spent on bulk mailings in Oakland County.
State Senator Mike Kowall (R-White Lake, Walled Lake, West Bloomfield, Commerce Township, Wixom, Novi), who spent $41,459 on bulk mailings from October 2013 to September 2014, said he uses a portion of his allotted office budget for mailings in order to keep constituents informed. However, Kowall has spent zero on bulk mailings during the current fiscal year, as of August 2015.
"It all depends on the issue," Kowall said. "Last cycle, we had two ballot proposals, and people were really confused. We got calls in the office, so we spent some of the allotment on that as an informative thing."
Kowall's assessment of his bulk mailings fit one of two views on legislative franking: it's simply another tool used to communicate with constituents or it's a polical promotion tool to keep lawmakers' names in front of voters.
Dan Opsomner, legislative director for Democratic Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak, Madison Heights), said Townsend's office always communicates with constituents by mail, which adds to the total postage cost.
"On the bulk end, we spend about $9,000 to $10,000 on newsletters in the spring and fall," he said.
In addition, Townsend typically sends reminders about coffee hours and town hall-style meetings where he updates constituents on legislation he is working to get passed.
"We do e-newsletters as well. If people aren't signing up for those, then they aren't getting the information. We also do an e-mail before coffee hours to remind residents," he said. "In terms of reaching people, especially older residents, direct mail is still preferable to them, so I think they appreciate that."
Oakland University Professor David Dulio, who serves as chairman of the university's political science department, said franking has benefits for both politicians and voters.
"It builds name recognition," Dulio said. "It's a longstanding truth that most Americans cannot recall their House member's name, but they can recognize it if they are presented with a list of names. And when are they presented with a list of names? On the ballot."
The value of bulk mailings is clear in some of the more competitive legislative districts in Oakland County, such as the 39th House District (Commerce Township, Wixom, part of West Bloomfield Township), and the 41st District (Troy, Clawson).
Rep. McCready, who spent $16,376 on postage in 2014, an election year, said his 40th District, which includes Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills and part of West Bloomfield, is slightly less competitive than some of the other districts in the county. McCready said party and candidate support in a district can also determine how much is spent on mailings.
"(Rep. Klint) Kesto's district is a difficult district, so he'll spend a lot more," McCready said.
Kesto (R), who is serving his second term in the 39th District, spent a total of $36,918 on postage and printing in 2014 – the same year in which he narrowly beat Democratic challenger Sandy Colvin in the general election, as well as two Republican challengers in the 2014 August primary. By comparison, Kesto spent $18,934 on postage and printing in 2013, his first year in office.
In the 41st District, Rep. Martin Howrylak (R) – who took Knollenberg's seat after he moved on to the Senate – spent $31,314 on postage and $6,002 on printing in 2014. That year Howrylak, also in his second term in the House, beat former Troy councilwoman Mary Kerwin in a hard-fought general election.
"It can have a great impact on re-election rates. I think that's a key perk of office," Dulio said regarding franking privileges. "It helps explain why we see, in the U.S. House and Senate, re-election rates of over 90 percent every two years. It also allows members to communicate with their constituents and brag about how good of a job they are doing, which translates to free advertising for them."
Howrylak said while he isn't sure if mailings help with name recognition, he said they are an effective way to communicate with constituents. However, he also said he is surprised by how many requests for information, particularly printed materials, his office receives.
"We have one bucket, and anything that needs to be spent comes out of that budget," he said about the amount spent on mailings. "We have been on the lower end on staff salaries, which has afforded us with the opportunity to print more.
"It is effective. We have to use every channel available to us to communicate, whether that's mail or e-mail. Despite all of this, we still have people that don't know what's going on... My hope is that people talk about the issues we put in there. We do find people engaging us on the issues."
Wayne State University Professor Timothy Bledsoe, who also served in the state 1st House District (Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe and part of Detroit), agreed that bulk mailings may serve as a method of self promotion. He said the effectiveness of mailings is harder to determine.
"There's no good way to measure it," he said of bulk mailings. "It's a way of getting your name out there, and maybe some stories that you want to tell to your community. There are many different ways to do mailings."
The most expensive method of sending bulk mailings is to have something mailed to every home in a representative's district. However, legislators are able to target specific voters.
"It could be districtwide, or it could be anyone with a hunting or fishing license," he said as an example. "A lot of people do standard mailings that the caucus media people prepare for them, which have a common theme or look. Some of us did our own thing."
Bledsoe said he typically did one large mailing a year. Additionally, he would send an e-newsletter every two weeks.
"In the fall, as we looked at the end of the year, my staff would say, if we had it in the budget, but basically it was what was left over after paying salaries," he said. "If you're spending 30 percent of your budget on it, it's clearly something that you are calculating into your budget."
Because franking is a political tool that can be used on the taxpayer's dime, rather than money from a legislator's own campaign accounts, there are very specific rules on the content of franking materials and when they can be mailed. Both members of the Senate and House are required to follow the same guidelines.
Overall, any part of each member's annual budgeted office allotment may be used throughout the course of a year. However, mailings are restricted to locations inside a member's district. Further, there are several types of prohibited types of content. In general, any printing of personal or partisan material of any nature for a legislator is strictly prohibited.
Examples of prohibited material include political cartoons depicting recognizable political personalities and/or parties; personal reports on the family or family life of a legislator; articles by a legislator's spouse or legislative staff; holiday greetings, except a one line holiday greeting in the same type style and size as the text of the publication; references to past or future campaigns or elections; a thank you message regarding election to office; comments critical of an individual legislator or other individuals; solicitations of political support; position papers or articles by private organizations or people; local ballot issue explanations, except the exact wording of the proposal; newspaper clippings, posters or pictures that are personal or political; notifications or endorsements of products or services, except within booklets of a public service nature; campaign logos, slogans, websites, phone numbers and e-mails; printings in foreign languages; printing or mailing in combination with another legislator.
Additional sorts of prohibited materials include bumper stickers, magnets, buttons and other similar items; information on or notification of events in which the legislator will participate that will occur on a future date beyond the legislator's current term; statewide nominating and ballot proposal petitions; references to names of or how to contact persons if the purpose is to urge those individuals to take action on an issue; birthday greetings and messages; social media websites that don't relate to the work of the legislature.
Further restrictions are placed on the materials of the mailings. For instance, specific paper stock and ink colors are approved for its use, as well as the types of photos or graphics in a mailing.
Restrictions are also placed on when mailings can be utilized. For instance, in the 2016 election year, between July 2 and August 2, 2016, and between October 8 and November 8, 2016, a maximum of $500 postage will be available in the member's account. This is to provide a sufficient amount to accommodate routine mail, but ensure informative materials aren't used as direct campaigning.
Additionally, from March 22, 2016 (one month prior to the last date for filing nominating petitions for election) through November 8, 2016, the only photos that can be used in the pieces being printed by any print shops are photos of the member pictured alone for whom the printing is being completed, approved stock photos provided to the caucus coordinator or photos that have no people in them.
Because of the strict deadlines and prohibitions on certain promotional materials, savvy legislators tend to send bulk mailings late enough for them to increase name recognition, but within the guideline's deadlines. For instance, in the 39th District, Kesto's largest bulk mailings in 2014 were made on June 23 ($6,328 on postage) and June 30 ($6,669 for postage); with additional mailings in May and September. In the 41st District, Howrylak's largest mailing ($7,007 in postage) was sent on September 29, with additional mailings on Sept. 30 and Sept. 22.
And, despite the apparent value of franking materials to those in office, such mailings are often just as helpful to voters.
"I think it does have some value," Dulio said. "Take it with a grain of salt because it has great benefits for folks come re-election time, but it does provide information on what that individual is doing, in part. I'm sure they talk about the issues they have been championing in relation to the district. Sometimes they provide ways to provide feedback, so it does provide some information and a connection between the Rep and the constituent. Regardless of any political help, that's a good thing. It's helping the Representative be responsive to their constituents."
Still, there are several Oakland County legislators that don't invest in bulk mailings, perhaps opting to spend their budgets in other areas and connect with legislators through electronic means.
Former Democratic Rep. Vicki Barnett, who left the House's 37th District (Farmington, Farmington Hills) in 2014 due to term limits, spent just $77.47 on postage in 2013, and $183.06 in 2014.
"I didn't want to spend taxpayer money where I didn't think it was necessary. Most of my budget did go to staff," she said. "I didn't use as much of my office budget to save money. I always spent my money very carefully. I would hand deliver some booklets, where other (representatives) would mail them."
While Barnett's concern for appropriate spending may have factored into how much she spent on bulk mailings while in office, she also said the small size of her district also contributed to the amount she had to spend on postage.
"I also had a very compact district. I'm driving within a six square-mile area," she said. "When you get into the more rural areas, they are very large because they are based on population, not square footage, so they will have larger expenses."
Kowall also pointed out that senators will inherently spend more on postage because they serve a larger number of constituents. And while he said he uses mailings to try to keep constituents informed of happenings, there does appear to be value in sending tangible material to constituents.
"Some of the things we mail out go on a clipboard or somewhere," he said. "There's nothing worse than having people confused. We try to avoid that at all costs."
Whether the old fashioned snail mail system of bulk mailing is more effective than electronic means to keep voters informed, or boost name recognition, remains to be seen. However, there is no doubt that such mailings are a tool that can be used to inform and boost name recognition.
"The state House and Senate (members) have a tougher time garnering attention from the news media for a number of reasons," Oakland University's Dulio said. "Anytime they can put their name and accomplishments in front of the voters and constituents, it's a benefit to them."
Barnett, who ran for state Senator Vincent Gregory's 11th District seat in 2014, pointed to his mailings during the campaign year, which totaled $12,398. Gregory's bulk mailings the previous year totaled only $6,853, with none spent in 2015.
"Some people say I should have spent more because I was running for Senate," Barnett said, "but I don't use state money for campaigning."