Last December, in the final hours the Legislature was in session for 2015, a bill passed both Houses and was later signed by Governor Snyder.
That bill had originally been 12 pages, but was replaced by the 53-page Senate Bill 571. Several legislators say they didn't know the contents and the changes, but it still passed. Some legislators say they later regretted voting for it.
The bill placed restrictions on local governments and school districts communicating information about ballot proposals placed before voters. It was called, in what many feel was an exaggeration, a gag order.
It’s been criticized by several organizations to the point that House Bill 5219 has been introduced and passed by the House in an attempt to clarify the restrictions.
Representative Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, offered the substitute last year and is backing the clarification this year. She tells us the new legislation is meant to further clarify the changes made in that 53-page substitute bill.
Lyons explains that the intent of those changes was to “simply protect taxpayer dollars from being spent on advocating for or against local ballot questions.”
“This bill, the changes in 571… put a 60 day restriction on publicly-funded communications via radio and television advertisement, mass mailing through the United States Postal Service, and robocalls on referencing ballot initiatives and ballot questions in local areas,” she says, again making clear the intent to save taxpayers from being left to pick up the check.
Lyons tells us this new clarifying legislation would largely uphold the restrictions on those four forms of communication while allowing factual information to be shared without crossing the line into “veiled or flagrant advocating.”
The Michigan Municipal League, the Michigan Association of Counties and Michigan Township Association feel it would be better to repeal that law. They say there were safeguards already in place to prevent public bodies from spending taxpayer money on inappropriate campaigns for ballot proposals, but for Lyons, that doesn’t cut it.
“I have met with representatives of all of those organizations, and frankly, the status quo is not good enough,” she says. As it stood, Lyons tells us that entities could operate without violating the law by avoiding just a few key words: “vote yes, vote no, support, oppose.”
“Many of these entities were able to comply with the letter of the law when really they were violating the spirit of the law,” she says. “That’s what the changes in 571 were meant to get at, and that’s what this bill very clearly does.
In an article for Dome Magazine, journalist Chad Selweski and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network's Rich Robinson suggest that the idea behind the bill comes from the politically-active DeVos family. Lyons flatly denies the allegation.
“I had no conversations with the DeVos family as it relates to this bill. You know, this bill wasn’t done for any family or any group, this bill was done for the taxpayers,” she says.
Critics of the legislation say the language limiting local elected bodies to share only factual and neutral information about ballot proposals is too vague, but Lyons argues the new language is clear as day.
“Those claiming that the legislation is too vague, you know, they’re just defending the status quo and that’s not good enough,” she says. “This bill is very clear. It provides clarity to the expectations of our local entities, and you don’t have to be a lawyer to know what the bill means… I just think that’s a red herring to continue the status quo, and that’s not acceptable.”