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Term limits backers broke Michigan campaign finance law, complaint claims

trojan horse in front of Michigan Capitol
A billboard affixed to a wooden horse features a website opposing the term limits proposal on the November ballot in Michigan. The website is run by U.S. Term Limits, a Washington, D.C.-based group opposing the ballot effort. (Bridge photo by Yue Stella Yu)
  • A complaint filed Tuesday argues U.S. Term Limits should register as a ballot question committee for opposing the term limits proposal
  • U.S. Term Limits hosts a website that is featured on a wooden ‘Trojan horse’ parked around Lansing
  • The group says it isn't breaking any laws

LANSING — U.S. Term Limits — a Washington, D.C., nonprofit opposing Michigan’s term limits proposal on the November ballot — should have registered as a ballot question committee and disclosed its financial information, a group advocating for the measure argued in a campaign finance complaint filed Tuesday.

League of Women Voters — a voting rights group that endorsed the term limits measure in April — argued in its complaint that the D.C. group violated state campaign finance laws by spending more than $500 opposing the measure without disclosing it. The national group is also fundraising against the ballot measure, the complaint alleges.

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“Our democracy only works if those participating in it follow the rules,” said Christina Schlitt, co-president of the League of Women Voters, in a statement. “The opponents of the financial transparency and term limits reform proposal need to immediately stop misleading and confusing the voters of Michigan and comply with the law.”

Scott Tillman, national field director for U.S. Term Limits, said the group has not done antything o require it to register as a ballot committee. He noted he is a “dues paying member” of League of Women Voters.

“We talk about term limits all the time. Does the League of Women Voters think it is appropriate that an advocacy group talks about their issue, that they have to go and file as a ballot question committee?” Tillman said, pointing out the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports constitutionalizing abortion rights in Michigan, has not had to file as a committee for a separate ballot measure . 

“U.S. Term Limits, we are not out there telling people to vote yes or vote no on this issue,” he said. “They have not gone out to raise money to go and help the Michigan effort. They have a

The ballot measure, designated “Proposal 1” on the November ballot, is a constitutional amendment proposal that would allow state lawmakers to serve a total of up to 12 years in the Legislature, regardless of the chamber. Currently, lawmakers can serve up to six years in the House and up to eight in the Senate.

The initiative would also apply stricter financial disclosure rules on state elected officials, such as the governor, attorney general, secretary of state and lawmakers. Michigan and Idaho are the only states that do not require elected or appointed public officials to disclose personal financial information.

State lawmakers voted in May to place the issue on the ballot and weakened the language on the floor, without debate or public notice ahead of the vote. 

The original language — championed by bipartisan coalition Voters for Transparency and Term Limits — would have required state public officials to disclose income, assets and payments received from anyone. Instead, the resolution approved by the Legislature only requires lawmakers to disclose “sources” of income and assets and match gift reporting requirements for registered lobbyists.

Supporters, such as former Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley, a Republican, have said the measure would “deliver the kind of good government Michigan deserves,” according to a July statement from the ballot campaign.

But opponents said the initiative would allow lawmakers to serve more time in each chamber. He previously called the measure a “poll-manufactured transparency from this lobbyist-written proposition.” 

Opposition groups have launched websites against the term limits proposal. U.S. Term Limits, for example, hosts MichiganScam.com, which calls the ballot measure “the biggest anti-term limit scam ever.” It features a podcast, videos and blog posts and directs users to subscribe to a mailing list. 

The website also shows photos of a wooden horse carrying a mobile billboard against the term limits proposal. The sign, which was parked outside the state Capitol building the day state lawmakers voted to put the measure on the November ballot, features the message: “DON’T FALL for the LOBBYISTS’ Term Limits Scam” and that “It’s a Trap!”

In its Tuesday complaint, League of Women Voters argued U.S. Term Limits paid for the “Trojan Horse” and other efforts against the ballot measure. The group also argued that U.S. Term Limits should have printed the label “paid for by” on the billboard attached to the horse.

“Based on information and belief, the expense of printing signage, outfitting and moving the Trojan Horse, editing and publishing a podcast, and maintaining the U.S. Term Limits website exceeds $500,” the complaint reads.

Tillman told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday he is the owner of the wooden horse. 

“I built the horse in 2011, and I own the horse, it doesn’t belong to U.S. Term Limits,” he wrote in an email. 

Michigan law requires anyone who raises or spends more than $500 in any calendar year “influencing or attempting to influence the action of the voters” over a ballot question to register as a committee. 

But a committee that does not expect to raise or spend more than $1,000 in any calendar year can file for a campaign finance reporting waiver, state law states. 

There is no term limits-related committee by the name “U.S. Term Limits” registered with the Michigan Secretary of State. U.S. Term Limits is a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, which is not required to disclose its donors. Its associated 501(c)(3) group — U.S. Term Limits Foundation — took in more than $553,000 in fiscal year 2019 and spent more than $361,000 that year, including a $10,000 grant to Take Charge Chicago, a referendum for mayoral term limits.

The only ballot question committee registered to oppose the proposal is No More Time for Career Politicians, whose treasurer is Tillman. Keith Allard, a former GOP staffer who blew the whistle on the extramarital affairs between former Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, serves as the group’s campaign manager.

That group on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the Board of State Canvassers, which certified the ballot proposal for the November election, as well as Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and state Bureau of Elections Director Jonathan Brater. 

The lawsuit deems the initiative’s summary language, drafted by state Bureau of Elections staff, was not “impartial” and failed to note “the proposal repeals and replaces constitutional term limits,” according to a Tuesday press release.

“In particular, plaintiffs contend that the proposal would repeal long standing provisions of the Michigan Constitution, but that a reader of the ballot description adopted by the Board of Canvassers would not be properly informed that the proposal would ‘alter or abrogate’ the Constitution,” the lawsuit reads.

The complaint argues lawmakers have a conflicted because they can stay in office longer if the initiative is approved and "bundled two unrelated issues" into one ballot question.

That group is hoping to file a lawsuit against the term limits proposal, Tillman said Tuesday. 

Patrick Anderson, who helped draft the current term limits law in 1992, called the term limits ballot proposal “inaccurate” in a Thursday statement. 

He said the description on the ballot “hid from the voters the fact that term limits were being repealed” and included other misleading information.

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“This will not be the last time someone tries to slip a repeal of an important constitutional right into a nicely-wrapped package, and the Courts should intervene before that practice becomes institutionalized.”

On Friday, Voters for Transparency and Term Limits released a statement deeming legal challenges against the ballot proposal “frivolous.” The statement did not mention any opposition group by name, instead addressing it as a “shadowy dark money-backed group of lobbyists.”

“We should all be asking why a small group of naysayers funded by a big out-of-state checkbook are scheming so hard to keep Michigan voters in the dark. What are they trying to hide? Who are they trying to protect from financial disclosure and transparency?” the statement said.

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