Yes, it’s a gag rule, and withholding information will hurt government

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan is committed to the simple belief that better information leads to better government. Unfortunately, a new state law will limit the amount and type of information about local ballot questions that government officials can share with voters. Limiting the information available to those asked to weigh in on important public policy matters will not improve government.

The Citizens Research of Council of Michigan is celebrating its centennial in 2016. For the past 100 years, CRC (and the Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research that preceded it) has been in the business of preparing and disseminating nonpartisan, objective research on the most salient public policy issues facing state and local government.

From the first day CRC opened its doors, our work has been guided by an axiom coined by Lent Upson, CRC’s first executive director: “The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.” This belief rests on the tenet that citizens, armed with impartial information on public policy issues, will either bring pressure on their public officials to act, or employ the tools of direct democracy to bring about change.

In a representative democracy, citizens elect individuals to decide on public policy initiatives. Citizens hold their representatives accountable through regular elections. Under Michigan constitutional and statutory law, citizens have retained the legislative power to directly decide on certain policy initiatives. Through the ballot question process, citizens, not elected officials, serve as policymakers. In this capacity, voters need to be equipped with complete information on ballot questions to ensure efficient, accountable, and economical government.

CRC frequently plays a role in educating voters on various state and local ballot questions. While CRC is proud of its role, it can hardly claim sole responsibility. More often it is other individuals and organizations that are responsible for ensuring the electorate is well-informed on public matters that directly affect their safety, health and well-being. This includes public officials, both appointed and elected. These officials are the very same folks responsible for delivering government services to citizens and often have the most intimate knowledge of how a ballot proposal will affect their constituents. They are the best prepared and suited to carry out the responsibility.

Recently, Gov. Snyder signed legislation that limits the information that can be shared with the public concerning upcoming local ballot questions. Specifically, Public Act 269 of 2015 prohibits local officials from publicly discussing a ballot proposal in the 60 days leading up to an election.

Its language reads:

Except for an election official in the performance of his or her duties under the Michigan election law, 1954 PA 116, MCL 168.1 to 168.992, a public body, or a person acting for a public body, shall not, during the period 60 days before an election in which a local ballot question appears on a ballot, use public funds or resources for a communication by means of radio, television, mass mailing, or prerecorded telephone message if that communication references a local ballot question and is targeted to the relevant electorate where the local ballot question appears on the ballot (emphasis added).

The new law pertains to everything from amending a city charter to approving a school millage. The law has been described by opponents as a “gag order” on officials’ ability to share important information with their citizenry before they vote.

It must be pointed out that when citizens are asked to act as policymakers through the ballot question process, they often face very complex and technical issues. Take for example the 18-mill school operating millage. This tax is a foundational component of the school funding model adopted under Proposal A of 1994 and is dedicated to financing the “local” portion of each school district’s per-pupil grant. State law requires districts to levy the tax if they want to receive from the state the balance of their full grant amount; the state will not make up the local funding if voters don’t approve the tax. The tax is not a “local option” tax, but it effectively serves as a state tax for purposes of Proposal A, no different than other taxes (sales, income, and tobacco) used to fund the per-pupil grant.

However, because it is a property tax levied by local government, the Michigan Constitution requires that the tax cannot be levied without voter approval. Therefore, voters in school districts across the state are regularly asked to renew the millage to ensure full per-pupil funding.

A number of school districts will be asking voters to approve the operating tax millage renewal at the March 8 election. Public Act 269 prevents school officials from sharing basic information about how the 18-mill operating tax works in the larger context of Proposal A but also in terms of how the tax effects the amount of per-pupil funding a district receives.

Citizens deserve to have access to the best and most comprehensive information about their government and the decisions affecting the public’s health, security, and well-being. If that information is withheld from citizens, especially when they are tasked with decision making responsibility, government suffers. And if government suffers, the people receiving government services suffer.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

About The Author

Craig Thiel

A guest author for Bridge Magazine.

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Comments

KG-1
Fri, 02/05/2016 - 2:55pm
Sorry, Mr. Thiel. But when local governments use children for their "informational" campaign, play fast and loose with electioneering language, and imply that you will die if you don't send more money to your local government, this law isn't a gag rule...it's just plain common sense. That been said, care to explain what is preventing local politicians and board members from opening up their own wallets if they feel so strongly about an issue? That fact alone should be telling enough on this issue when they are more willing to spend other people's money rather than their own. And I'd also like to know what is keeping voters from turning on their TV/Radio, opening up a newspaper or even using the internet to look up information regarding any upcoming millage votes? When did local units of government suddenly become the sole source of information regarding ballot information? This reader would like to know?
Chuck Fellows
Fri, 02/05/2016 - 6:18pm
Local units of government are the primary sources for information regarding millage requests and ballot issues. They are the entities responsible for crafting the ballot language within the boundaries of existing law and regulation which often results in statements incomprehensible to the general public without information regarding the appropriate context. There is no evidence of broad "fast and loose" applications of existing law. If you have evidence that such abuse exists (please, no isolated example) backed up with comprehensive statistics regarding the scope of the alleged abuse please provide. Otherwise understand that you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. Bottom line this public act is another in a long series of attempts by conservative groups to convert the republic into an oligarchy. Render local government impotent through reductions in revenue raising abilities, interfering with voter turnout and gag orders such as this one.
KG-1
Fri, 02/05/2016 - 7:59pm
I cited three examples above, Mr. Fellows. If those facts are difficult for you to accept, claiming that they are merely "opinions" does not negate that they are true. And as I already pointed out above, there is absolutely nothing preventing those politicians in local governments from opening up their own wallets and paying as much as they want to promote their message. Their insistence that it should be paid for by a local unit of government should be very telling right there.
Duane
Fri, 02/05/2016 - 11:50pm
In my community this new 60 day rule is the best oppottunity we will have to pass new taxes, charter amendments, and other public policy issues. In my community the support dwindles as government managers and elected official start trying to explain the issue and why we shold support it. They are either tone deft [never listening to themselves], they think the voters are stupid and try to describe what will happen in terms that miss the concerns of the voters, or they simply try to make people believe that it will do more than is possible. We simply need the politicians and City/County managers to shut-up and trust to the voters. This legislation will allow that to happen.
Dennis Smith
Mon, 02/08/2016 - 1:59pm
And what community would that be? You sound like a paid shill dreaming up hypothetical cases where keeping voters uninformed is somehow good for them. The language of this law was added to another bill at the 11th hour to avoid debate precisely because it cannot stand up to scrutiny. The people are on to selfish scum like you. We want more information about the workings of our representatives not less.
Duane
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 12:00am
In my community they tried over two dozen times to change the charter to repeal the civil service, they have tried to pass increases millage multiple times, they even tried for a non vote required millage increase that was already voted into the annual budget and failed. These may sound contrived but this has really happened, and it is all because they are tone deft and say what they want to hear not what the voters are listening for. If I give you the name will you verify this and then acknowledge that you only want to hear what fits your view of the politics and not reality, that you are willing to do any more for helping people make their own choices than deny what is an inconvenient truth? Are you willing to work on developing criteria for help people assess candidates and issues? Are you willing to knowledge that you have not made sufficient effort in think through the issues and consider more than what other say? I doubt it, but I will wait for an answer. As for this law, all some City has to do is to say it violates its 1st amendment right and track it all the way to the US Supreme Court that allowed organizations the right to protection under the Constitution.
Steve Smewing
Sun, 02/07/2016 - 8:00am
Mr Fellows revealed himself in the last paragraph of the first rebuttal. Further he asked for data on the rebuttal but yet he offered only his opinion in his piece.
Norm
Fri, 02/05/2016 - 7:25pm
The way to counter speech you disagree with is not to gag the other side, it's to speak out for your side.
Greg
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 8:55pm
Oh my, KG. I didn't know such terrible things were happening. Please, give us your concrete examples of such heinous deeds.
John Q. Public
Fri, 02/05/2016 - 9:29pm
If the following statement--adjectives, nouns and verbs--by the school board is true, is it allowed, or is it advocacy? "If the millage vote is defeated, our first option to replace the crumbling elementary school is to eliminate the interscholastic athletics programs and use the resulting savings from the operations fund to enhance the building fund."
William Harrl
Sat, 02/06/2016 - 2:11pm
This is just a statement of fact. There is no "magic money". If the elementary school is in such condition that it needs to be replaced - it needs to be replaced. If the money doesn't come from a voted bond, it will have to come from the general fund. This school was just stating fact of where the general fund would be modified to pay for the building of a new elementary. It's fair for the voter to know this fact
John Anthony La...
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 2:17pm
Might depend on who gets to decide if the "first option" statement is a fact or an opinion. . . .
Phil
Sat, 02/06/2016 - 10:52am
Is there anything to make out of commenter KG-1's three examples (thanks for the links, by the way) West Bloomfield, Grand Rapids and Rochester Hills are generally Republican areas and the bill was opposed by legislative Democrats? Or Rep. Lisa Lyons, angling for a gig as Kent County Clerk, home of Grand Rapids, pushing the law in question? Unless I missed it, in the three (CapCon) examples, only West Bloomfield had their wrists slapped but that was reason enough for the recently passed law?
Steve Smewing
Sun, 02/07/2016 - 8:20am
I guess I don't get it. Are the people of the state stupid, uninformed, enlightened, informed, or some other combination. Mr Fellows states that the people are charged with being legislators. No argument with that. Where I get confused is where the only way for the people to be informed is by the group who will benefit. I am trying to think of situations where other legislators at any level should only listen to the group who will get the funds. I have not been able to come up with one that makes sense. Also when it is the people of action that are to be the legislators should not the pro's and con's come from the people. If I follow the argument then are you saying every level of public groups should have a department of increasing funding for the purpose of educating the public because otherwise they will not give us money.
David Waymire
Sun, 02/07/2016 - 9:09am
Local officials are not the only source of information in some circumstances; in others,where an election doesn't attract local media attention or there is no media, they are. But taxpayers deserve an explanation of what is being proposed. This law prevented that. And by the way, a federal judge Friday said this law is likely to be found unconstitutional and has stayed it. It's funny how many tea party ideas are found unconstitutional.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 02/07/2016 - 12:00pm
Why is it that only schools have to run millages to raise money? Why not for air craft carriers? Why not road taxes. Oh wait, that didn't work out so well. Why is it that the legislature can attach money to a bill and overturn the will of the people?
Duane
Sun, 02/07/2016 - 12:43pm
Why not ask what are we getting for our money before you want start spending of it? If only we could have some form of accountability of the spending in Lansing and Washington. At least locally with the millage votes we get to at least have some in put. I wonder why you are asking why people voted down the road tax. Do you think they don;t want better roads or could they be so frustrated for the lack of value we get for the money? In my town when ask about new technology they simply have a blank look and an open mouth. Technology has touch every part of our lives except the state road spending, they don't even make the contractors pay for repair for unacceptable construction.
ArtZ
Mon, 02/08/2016 - 7:27am
Is this "gag" restriction common through out the other states?
Richard scott
Mon, 02/08/2016 - 8:23am
I was repeatedly informed that librarians would be unable to show the few literate people who might want to examine a law or be directed to bipartisan information for sixty days before an election. That this was stupid, let me so ask Snyder to veto. But to read the very long hard to understand legislation. I asked my representative and he said they had been working on the way to have it proper, which was to avoid tax dollars for tv adds and such. We know much of tax dollars is frittered or not used appropriately, but the pa ruling seemed to be less stringent . Certainly educators must be able to tell what the money is used for so mill ages allowing schools to afford tools for teaching. Those who believe they are old and should not pay for schools or young and use private schools may not be swayed, but hopefully information leads to rational decision. Hope springs eternal.
Richard
Mon, 02/08/2016 - 1:03pm
The act PA 269 is more appropriate and seems to satisfy what Mr Chatfield told me at town meeting, that the attempt was to limit misuse of tax dollars and the pa does not seem to suggest a person could not talk but only use communication by radio, television, mass mailing... Or phone message. We get a huge amount of these now and frequently from elected persons. The original bill was vague and said no one on salary could mention a bill in that time. I would not read this as a gag rule for teachers talking at pita meetings, or policemen to friends or at meetings or even an incumbent talking on a meet the candidate tv show, while might prohibit placing placards within 60 days paid for by his funds from taxpayers.
Mary
Tue, 02/09/2016 - 7:26am
The bill does not prohibit private groups from running ad campaigns through television, radio, makers, or phone calls. Therefore corporations and PACS will be able to dump thousands of dollars into legislation favourable to them. Even some of the Republicans who (foolishly) voted for it without reading it are Yoder at the effect it who have. In a democracy voters need all the information they can get. It's why the First Amendment was created.