Sander Levin: State ‘gag law’ hurts schools, communities

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.

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.

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Thu, 01/21/2016 - 7:50am
DeVos wanted it so Snyder signed it. No other views mattered. Somehow this is supposed to be "relentless positive action"
Lola Johnson
Thu, 01/21/2016 - 10:37am
We all know that those who don't understand a millage issue will vote against it. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if no millages are passed, no school or municipality can pay its bills. PRESTO... in comes an EMERGENCY MANAGER to make things right by selling off property or cutting teachers. All those Republican legislators who voted for it and now claim they didn't know how it would affect us are weaseling again. Funny the Democrats could figure it out and voted against it. Someone needs to explain to Snyder and his minions in the legislature that we elected him governor, not emperor.
Thu, 01/21/2016 - 12:21pm
Funny, but I've never seen any infomercials from local governments or schools that is true information about an upcoming millage. True information would present pros and cons. All I ever see is information on how the sky will fall or the world will end if this millage, which is only a few cents per day for the average household, is not passed. And all the schools and local governments who have had failed millages in the past are still in existence today.
Thu, 01/21/2016 - 3:40pm
So, why is it that any local branch of government feels the needs to spend public money on something that I can easily find out about by opening a newspaper or turning on the TV/Radio? Not a very efficient use of public money if you ask me.
John Barrett
Thu, 01/21/2016 - 5:13pm
It is total nonsense to say people get their information about millages from radio & TV. Local bond issues, whether for municipalities, libraries or school districts are not covered in any detail on local media at all - if mentioned it is only in passing. Keeping citizens in the dark on issues affecting their local communities is nothing more than totalitarian control. Putin would love it.
Fri, 01/22/2016 - 3:31pm
"Keeping citizens in the dark"? Have you ever heard of the Internet? Unless you happen to live in Flint, there is a marked increase in the amount of public information that has been made available to the public in just the last decade alone statewide. And with only a limited number of times per year that local gov't can ask for a millage vote (at least four), that makes the process that much easier. If you cannot be bothered to look up that information (which isn't really that hard to do, I do it myself all of the time), then I highly doubt that you'd be interested in actually reading a glossy mailer from your local city/township/school board/ or county extoling all of the damage done to that local unit of government if a particular tax is not approved/renewed.
Ralph Skinner
Thu, 01/21/2016 - 10:17pm
Under this law, access to mass media is reserved for the PACs and anti tax groups. Those who spend a plutocrats money shouldn't have to compete against messages from public institutions run by democratically elected trustees. The very same people who are charged with preserving the institutions of our democratic republic. Any advantage must belong to the wealthy. They are the true drivers of change. The most significant changes over the past 30 years are all driven in favor of the corporate masters, from fewer civil servants/more contractors, to term limits, to out of state management of state pension funds, our state and most others have taken every step possible to favor legislation by the creative gurus at ALEC and the the legislators future bosses (thanks to term limits) of corporate America. The failure of democratic institutions is a business interest of some very powerful businesses. They write the laws to circumvent the process and the will of the people. The laws are taken up ad written by the industry or ALEC and introduced to the body by a legislative sponsor then usually adopted with few changes. Change election law, get corporate money out of the process, end gerrymandering, expect more of your leaders, demand laws be written in your state, penned by your statesmen, adressing issues important to the people of your state. . Be an active and engaged citizen and not just a voter. Understand how Democracy is the last thing some of these guys care about. They have been mandating, tying hands, and gagging people for the purpose of reinventing our institutions for 35 years. It just seems more brazen now because they have just about succeeded in everything they set out to do.
Robert Burgess
Fri, 01/22/2016 - 6:44pm
First of all, I agree that no school district, local municipality or township, county, or public library should advocate a "yes" vote on behalf of a proposed millage. But I do believe that it is the fiduciary responsibility of those organizations to inform voters what they are being asked to approve, for instance, renovations to the school buildings, a new fire station, improvements to the library, how much it might cost, what a mill or taxable are, etc. Most of these local organizations would stick to these types of facts in their printed newsletters, web sites, or cable access TV programs. If a school states, the millage is needed to improve technology in the schools and that today's students need to keep up to date in technology in order to compete in today's economy, I don't think that is advocacy, I think it is stating the obvious, but perhaps some people do. If local organizations are not allowed to provide information, then there will LESS not more accountability. There is no way that ballot language could be written (without a two or three page ballot proposal) to provide voters all the details they would want to know how the money will be spent in a school renovation, for instance. So, the ballot language is usually a paragraph stating the schools will renovate, equip or requip, etc. the building and grounds. I believe that voters are better served and there is MORE accountability if schools provide voters with information on how the money will be used to replace roofs, replace boilers and update heating cooling systems, replace single pane windows, remove and replace asbestos floor tiles, replace the gym bleachers and floor, upgrade classroom lighting to more energy efficient lighting, purchase new computer servers and classroom computers, renovate the school library and replace library furniture, renovate the school auditorium lighting and seating, improve traffic safety around the school by separating bus loops from parent traffic, expand the size of the cafeteria, renovate the school's kitchen, replace the high school track, build a new bus garage, renovate the career tech wing of the high school updating the auto shop, welding, and technology classrooms, update science labs, landscaping, etc. etc. etc. If schools and local units provide voters detail, that is detail that voters can then hold administrators feet to the fire to complete since they promised that is how the money would be spent. Otherwise, what is to prevent an athletically inclined superintendent from simply building a Texas sized football stadium with his name on it or an Olympic class swimming pool instead of taking care of the roofs, boilers, and all those non-sexy things that go into making a safe, warm, comfortable, pleasant, and educationally sound school environment (or police station or children's library wing, or whatever. the ballot language Hold schools and local units accountable. Revoke the SB 571 gag order. Also, hold them accountable to stay within existing laws to not advocate but state as Dragnet would say "the facts, just the facts, maam". Robert Burgess Past President Michigan School Business Officials
David Murray
Fri, 01/22/2016 - 9:28pm
So schools cannot present facts about issues 60 days before an election, yet politicians can present lies and distortions everywhere at any time with no recourse. Has the First Amendment been reduced to provide more room for the Second? Guns rights activists and owners yell and scream that their Second Amendment rights are "threatened", but Republicans in the State legislature have no qualms about violating and taking away First Amendment rights. Those who voted for that law didn't even know what they were voting for! They didn't even read the entire bill because they didn't have time. Yet they passed it anyway. Then, many asked the governor to veto it! What kind of legislation process is that? Vote for a bill you haven't read and don't know what is in it, then ask the governor to veto the bill you just passed. What's in their water?
David W
Sun, 01/24/2016 - 7:24am
Once again I say.... Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely! The Republican Michigan legislature and governor have absolute power and they no longer care about what is for the greater good of the people. Their concern is for getting what they can, as fast as they can before they are term limited out of office. They are feathering their nests for the receipt of benefits/jobs they hope to receive following their term in office. Our system of government will fail as the oligarchy in Michigan gains a stronger and stronger stranglehold over the legislative process.
Tue, 01/26/2016 - 9:54am
You'll note it only applies to local officials. State legislators can still send out information on state-wide ballot issues. If this was really a reform, it would apply to local and state officials. But, it transparently is not.