Campaign finance bill must be corrected

February 1, 2016

Response to a campaign finance law passed late last year as lawmakers were heading out the door at the end of the year, which has been referred to as a "gag order" on local governments and school districts, has spiraled out-of-control to the point of a bad joke that must now be either corrected or completely eliminated.

The law, Public Act 269, makes changes to the state's Campaign Finance Act, and is another example of our state lawmakers failing the voters. Initially introduced by state senator Mike Kowall (R-White Lake) as a dozen pages, SB 571 quickly ballooned into a 53-page controversy after being amended on the House floor without being read by nearly anyone except special interests groups, known as lobbyists.

As one senator stated after it was approved by a senate vote of 25-12 – including a yea from Sen. Marty Knollenberg (Rep. Michael Webber voted yes as well) – the law "might as well be Peggy Bundy's mystery meat because nobody knows what it does or what it is." Even Kowall admitted after the fact that he hadn't read all of the amendments to the bill.

Critics of the new law have focused on a provision that adds a 60-day timeframe during which school districts and local governments are prohibited from promoting local ballot issues. The law expressly bans locals governments from using radio, TV or mass mailings to provide any information about local ballot proposals 60 days before an election. Local governments and school districts say such mailings and information are needed to keep voters informed. 

Local officials opposed to the new law claim it essentially places a "gag order" on local governments and schools, some going so far as to say that the law restricts any discussion by a board. Those claims are simply not true, as there is nothing in the law that expressly prohibits public discussion of the issues. The law does prohibit mailings or other advertisements referencing ballot issues within 60-days of an election as a way to ensures that taxpayer money isn't being spent selling them a tax proposal, which in the past has happened even though current law is supposed to prevent this. 

Since the law was passed and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder – who admitted the law had issues even while signing it – there have been at least two proposals to amend it. At the same time, a group of school districts, local governments and others have filed suit in federal court to overturn the law. 

Clearly, state lawmakers messed up by voting on a bill they had not fully read, merely to 'get out of Dodge' at the end of the year. Besides local officials worrying about communicating with their constituents, the new law could now effect the future bond ratings of local municipalities, according to a recent statement by Moody's Investors Service. 

It's imperative that lawmakers now fix the predicament they've created to satisfy the ratings agency, and allow municipalities and school districts to reasonably and responsibly communicate information about millage proposals and other issues without crossing the boundary of an inappropriate sales pitch.

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