LANSING — State Representatives Gretchen Driskell (D-Saline), Vanessa Guerra (D-Saginaw), Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) voted against House Bill 5219, legislation to supposedly “fix” a bill passed in December placing a gag order on municipalities and schools attempting to inform voters about local ballot questions. Substitute language would not prevent local governments from running afoul of the law, but over Democrats’ objections, the bill passed 60-46.
“For years, the governor and his legislative allies have been cutting revenue sharing to local governments, making it harder to provide services that residents need. Municipalities have relied on millages to make up the difference,” Driskell said. “When local officials are prohibited from explaining how a ballot question will affect their constituents, people are more likely to vote no. This bill is adding insult to injury.”
“Our state has been ranked last in the nation when it comes to government transparency and accountability. Michigan voters deserve to know how their tax dollars are spent at every level of government,” Guerra said. “The legislation this bill is attempting to fix restricts information and prevents citizens from making an informed decision. Unfortunately, HB 5219 does little to prevent this.”
In December, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 571, legislation originally designed to streamline campaign finance reporting. On the last day of session, and at the last minute, the bill was amended from 12 pages to 53 pages, and it now included language preventing local governments and schools from providing information about ballot questions in the 60 days before an election. Over the objections of Democrats and even some Republicans who regretted voting for the bill without fully understanding the changes, Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law.
“When we have a legislative majority beholden to special interests and wealthy donors, this is the result we get,” Irwin said. “By removing the voice of locally elected councils and boards — who were already required by law to be neutral in the information they provide — Michigan citizens will be subject to even more robo-calls and mailers from undisclosed groups, funded by dark money contributions. This is not how democracy is supposed to work.”
Even though he signed SB 571 into law, Snyder asked the Legislature to fix the bill. Unfortunately, HB 5219 fails to provide any true remedy. The new language allows local governments to provide “strictly neutral information” about a ballot question unless the communication “can reasonably be interpreted as an attempt to influence the outcome” of the vote. None of these operative terms are defined, and the bill makes no mention of who would determine whether information is “strictly neutral” or “an attempt to influence.”
“What happens when someone decides that ‘neutral’ information is an attempt to influence voters? This so-called ‘fix’ is just a gaping loophole by which special interests can keep voters in the dark,” said Moss, Democratic vice chairman of the House Local Government Committee. “When the Legislature eliminated straight-ticket voting last year, supporters said they wanted more informed voters. By failing to fix this legislation, we’ve done the opposite. Lansing hypocrisy scored another victory today.”