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.