County official: Election law restrictions ‘anti-democratic’

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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.”

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  • Sick n tired

    Doesn’t everyone have health insurance now ? I know mine went up thanks to Obama ,so why should I pay more for someone else other than the premium I already pay for my family ? I don’t think it’s my problem. Enough of everyone’s problems and hardships becoming mine also.


    Maybe just use the Clinton coin toss. it worked for her in Iowa, 6 for 6 heads in her favor.
    Oh yeah Sick and Tired, my “free health care” just about put my in the grave with my pre existing conditions.
    We went from great insurance, a benefit from work to a free plan that cost thousands.
    And we were warned, but the bill passed anyway. in a secret midnight meeting with doors locked and no elected republican representatives allowed. Something about the most transparent administration….
    Free cell phones brought the greatest nation on earth to knees.
    Then the next day Pelosi and her gavel marching down the street claiming “it was for the children.

    • Sick n tired

      I understand, but I’ve had insurance for 29 yrs, and now because of Obama my insurance rates go up to help cover cost for people who can’t afford it. I don’t understand how it’s ok to take away from me and my family . It’s not like we are well off . Now they want more $ for mental health, to me insurance should cover this.

  • Keet

    The government and governmental institutions like schools using our money (taxes) to pay for ads to try to get more of our money through more taxes (millage increase sounds better, though, doesn’t it) is morally and ethically wrong. But morals and ethics apparently have no part in our government and schools…..again.

  • Kevin Rahe

    There is something wrong with the people who will benefit from it using public money to promote a law or ballot proposal that will in turn cost the public money. The only fair way to accommodate that would be to let those opposed to the law or proposal use the same amount of public money to promote their point of view. But is that a responsible use of public funds? Best to force promotion of or opposition to a law to be done with private funds.