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County official: Election law restrictions ‘anti-democratic’

Posted at 6:51 PM, Feb 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-02 18:51:52-05

HOLLAND, Mich. — Faced with dwindling funds from the state, Ottawa County officials plan to ask voters to approve a millage increase for community mental health services next month.

But under a newly passed state law, officials say they're unsure if they can even discuss the proposal with voters prior to the March 8 election without facing legal or even criminal consequences.

“Because of the unclear nature of the language, we believe someone could be fined or even jailed simply for expressing their 1st Amendment right to free speech," Ottawa County Administrator Al Vanderberg told FOX 17.

“The language is confusing."

The new state campaign law—hastily approved last year in the final hours of the 2015 legislative session—prohibits public entities like school districts and governmental bodies from using taxpayer funds to promote or even reference local ballot issues. The restrictions apply to mailers, robo-calls, or any radio or TV ads within 60 days of the election.

Vanderberg argues the 60 day period is a crucial time before an election because it's when most voters are usually just starting to pay attention.

"People are obviously going to have questions and they’re going to have those questions they closer we get to the day of the election," he said. "To have a 60 day blackout or any type of blackout is anti-democratic.”

More than 100 school districts and local governments will have measures on the March 8 primary ballot, which means the 60 day prohibition period that went into effect in January will apply.

Normally, Ottawa County would send out a 'frequently asked questions' mailer to voters on an upcoming proposal. Instead, Vanderberg said the county will err on the side of caution while advising all county employees to remain mum on even discussing the issue in public.

Prior to the changes, it was already illegal to use public dollars to advocate for or against local ballot proposals. Backers of the new law say some public entities were blurring the lines between promoting and advocating.

"These arguments that it’s a gag order are just untrue. It’s clear cut and they can answer questions, they can post things on their website," said Jeff Steinport, a board member with the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance.

“They can say whatever they want, they just can’t use public money to engage in electioneering. And public entities don’t have a 1st Amendment right.”

Steinport points to a Grand Rapids Public Schools television ad which aired just before a vote on a district-wide bond proposal last year as a prime example of why the new law is necessary.

"They don’t run ads any other time of the year. Of course they run it just before the election," he said.

“When there’s a lot of debate going on about money in politics, and when municipalities have pretty unlimited budgets to engage in this sort of electioneering, it makes it very unfair to people who are paying the bills. Your tax money shouldn’t be used to run ads against you or against your interest.”

Last month, school and local government officials filed a federal lawsuit alleging the law unconstitutionally infringes on free speech rights. A hearing is slated for Thursday.

Even Moody’s Investor Services recently declared the new law “credit negative," raising questions over whether bond ratings for districts and governments could take a hit.

“Moody’s assumptions are flawed in that it assumes public entities cannot provide residents with any information on these tax questions," said Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, introduced an amendment to the law.

"We are going to clarify that schools and local governments will be able to provide residents factual information, but they will not be able to influence voters on the taxpayers’ dime.”

The Republican-backed law was signed in January by Gov. Rick Snyder, who urged lawmakers to follow up with clarifying legislation. Several amemnerds have already been proposed to do just that.

Lyon's amendment would allow officials to share ballot question language and the election date through mailers, TV and radio ads, or robo-calls. It would also clarify that ballot proposals could be discussed during public meetings.

The bill could come up for a vote in committee this week.

Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, and Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, introduced similar amendments which would also reduce the prohibition period from 60 to 30 days prior to an election.

In the meantime, Vanderberg said he feels like one of the most basic responsibilities of locally elected officials has been muddied by an unnecessary change.

“We’re trying to be as transparent as we can and in this case it seems like the state is saying we’re not going to allow you to be transparent at a critical time when people are trying to decide the appropriate governance issues of their county," he said.

“Where are we left? We can’t communicate, we can’t be transparent and that just doesn’t seem to be the way government was intended to be.”