In the 1960s and '70s, my late wife Vicki and I raised our four children in Berkley. A major reason we moved there was because of the school system. The school district did not have a strong tax base, primarily based on the middle-class residences in Berkley, Huntington Woods and parts of Oak Park. So there was a constant need to win support from owners of these residences for millages for schools.
Vicki took the lead with several others to form Berkley Better Schools to sustain support for the district. I joined in these efforts, which deepened my belief in the value of public involvement and service. Essential for the success of these efforts was the ability of the elected school board and school district administration to disseminate facts about the programs and the financial status of the district. Without that ability to get out the basic information, Berkley would not have become the outstanding school district that it is today.
My family’s Berkley story is echoed in innumerable communities in Michigan. It is why I was incensed when the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 571 and Gov. Snyder so mistakenly signed it. It is why all of us with similar experiences from all walks of life and political affiliations must join together to demand repeal of what has correctly been called a “gag law.”
The dramatic decline in property values – and in property tax revenue – during the recent deep recession, coupled with state cuts to local revenue-sharing and changes to the use of School Aid Fund money, has forced local governments to serve their residents and school districts to educate our children with less – in many cases, with much less. In order to provide vital services, governments and schools often must ask their residents to consider millage renewals or increases. It is simply wrong that our counties, townships, cities and schools must place these and other critical decisions before voters while at the same time preventing those governments from giving residents the factual information they need to make informed decisions.
It is important to be clear – prior to the governor signing SB 571 into law, local governments were already prohibited from using taxpayer money to advocate for the passage or defeat of local ballot measures, exactly as they should be. Election activity should never be paid for with public money. But this new law goes much further and prevents local governments from providing their residents with basic facts about ballot measures within 60 days of an election – exactly when people begin to focus on the choices before them.
Here are just a few examples.
Under the new law, within 60 days of an election a school district or local government cannot explain to residents the difference between a “hold harmless” millage and a “non-homestead” millage; tell people whether a millage question appearing on their ballot is a new tax or a renewal of a previous millage, or even tell residents what their tax dollars would be spent on should a millage be approved. They can’t even state, in newsletters or in public access broadcasts, what a proposed millage increase would cost the average homeowner. But this gag order isn’t just on tax-related issues. It applies to any ballot issue, such as charter amendments, requests on annexation, property sales, and many more.
While I strongly believe that the governor should have vetoed SB 571, it’s not too late to change it – and to their credit, legislators from both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of the Legislature have introduced legislation which would remove the 60-day “gag rule.” Two bills in particular, SB 703 and similar legislation planned for introduction in the House, call for a repeal of the gag order language. More than 100 communities, school districts and entities throughout Michigan have millages and other issues on their ballots on March 8th. It’s imperative that the Legislature quickly pass one of these bills and that the governor sign it. They must remove the wall they have built between residents and local governments – there’s too much at stake to leave it up.