By ROHITHA EDARA
Capital News Service
LANSING — As upcoming March elections approach, local government officials are struggling to comply with the new state law that restricts them from sharing information about their ballot initiatives.
Sometimes they’ve had to interrupt efforts already underway.
“Fremont had 3,000 brochures that were ready to be sent out, not advocating but just educating about how a millage will be used, but they couldn’t send them out,” said Steve Currie, deputy director of the Michigan Association of Counties.
Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new law Jan. 16 that prohibits local government discussion of ballot proposals 60 days before an election.
Local government groups are attempting to repeal the law and are considering a lawsuit claiming it violates their freedom of speech.
About 118 local and 10 statewide ballot initiatives are scheduled for March elections.
Jennifer Smith, director of governmental affairs at the Michigan Association of School Boards, said that the 60 days before the election are crucial as that’s when voters’ interest peaks. The new law makes that hard.
“It limits our ability to communicate about how their money is being spent,” she said.
In Tuscola County, voters are considering a millage to fund MSU Extension, a Michigan State University initiative that equips Michigan residents with skills and information.
Currie said the county board of commissioners cancelled a meeting with an MSU representative to discuss the millage increase request for fear of violating the law.
“You cannot talk about anything except via social media or e-mails. You cannot talk about it at a board meeting. Local government officials cannot even answer questions from citizens,” he said.
Other local officials are confused about what to do.
The Genesee District Library and the Genesee County Drain Commission usually distribute annual reports to county households informing them of their progress in programs supported by millages.
“We usually send them in May or June as they go for a millage vote in August, but now we are confused about what to do with them,” said John Gleason, the Genesee County clerk. “People need to be informed that their tax is going to be raised. They are on a fixed income and they should be fully aware of how their money is going to be used to make a good decision.”
He’s also said he worries about the law’s effect on voter turnout.
“We just had a city of Flint mayoral election – a city of 90,000 people where only about 13,000 total votes were cast,” Gleason said. Less information about ballot initiatives could discourage more voters from taking part in elections.
While the campaign finance law was introduced to reduce public spending and restrict officials from advocating for certain millages, it places restrictions on all ballot initiatives. And that’s even affecting initiatives that are not about spending.
Currie said the Oakland County Commission was recently forced to cancel a talk in Birmingham to discuss a road contract amendment that was up for vote in the election.
“They are not asking for money,” he said. “It just needs to go to the people for a vote and yet they couldn’t talk about it.”
The law imposes a fine of up to $1,000 for people and up to $20,000 for government institutions that violate it. It could also lead to a year of imprisonment.
“We are receiving inquiries from counties about what they should be doing involving local issues on the March 8 ballot,” said Derek Melot, director of communication and management at the Michigan Association of Counties. “We are advising them to avoid any circumstance that might be considered as a violation of the law.”
That group and the Michigan Association of School Boards are demandingr epeal of the section of the bill that restricts ballot education.
“We are also supportive of a few bills that repeal the section,” said Smith of the school boards group said. Two bills were introduced by Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto and Sen. Dale Zorn, R-Redford Township, which introduce clarifications and a full repeal of the section, respectively.
“I am hopeful that the bill will get passed,” Zorn said. “I am in contact with the committee chairman and working to get a hearing in the next week. I have also spoken to some legislators and they said that they support repeal.”
The counties and school board associations are also considering suing to overturn the law as a violation of freedom of speech, said Smith.
By ROHITHA EDARA