Lansing — A sweeping elections bill Gov. Rick Snyder signed Wednesday could put a crimp in the funding mechanism that fuels the political arm of the United Auto Workers labor union.
Senate Bill 571 had drawn heavy scrutiny from municipal and school officials because it contains a prohibition on local government leaders using taxpayer resources to distribute factual information about ballot issues.
But the biggest impact of the money-in-politics legislation received little to no attention in part because it was tacked on by Republican leaders in the waning moments of a late-night Dec. 16 legislative session. Buried inside the 53-page bill was a provision prohibiting corporations from collecting contributions to a union’s political action committee.
Snyder’s office confirmed Wednesday the new law would, for example, prohibit Ford Motor Co. from deducting voluntary contributions to the UAW Community Action Program from a unionized autoworker’s paycheck.
The law only allows employee contributions to a corporation’s PAC to be collected through payroll deductions, Snyder’s office said.
“This legislation includes many important campaign finance reforms that protect the integrity of our election process,” Snyder said in a statement.
Democrats and labor unions appeared caught off guard by the effect of the legislation.
“It’s just the latest example of Republicans doing everything they can to expand the influence of corporations at the expense of everyone else,” said House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills.
The Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative political organization with ties to the wealthy DeVos family in west Michigan, celebrated the governor’s signing of the bill.
“It’s one of those reforms that I think is positive for the state and allows employers to stay focused on their core business,” said Greg McNeilly, chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund and a GOP political consultant.
The law ends a longstanding practice of labor unions getting companies to pay for the administration of collecting union PAC contributions, McNeilly said.
“Why should unions force employers to collect their political dues?” he asked.
Labor unions now will have to collect voluntary donations to political committees that help fund the campaigns of predominantly Democratic candidates independent of employers.
A UAW spokesman declined to comment Wednesday.
“This is a continuation of the desperate tactics we’ve seen Republicans use over the course of the last five years to do anything and everything to keep themselves in power,” Greimel said.
The legislation contained other changes in state elections law related to campaign finance disclosures, allowing candidates to pay off past campaign debts in later election cycles as well as the transfer of money between trade association members and political committees.
While signing the bill, Snyder said he is asking the Republican-controlled Legislature to quickly send him another bill to clarify that the new law is not meant to stifle free speech by local government and school officials or bar them from distributing “basic information about an election.”
Municipal and school officials had likened the legislation to placing a gag order on their ability to communicate information to voters about property tax votes, school bond issues and other ballot questions using television, radio and print media.
“I am calling on the Legislature to enact new legislation to address those concerns, and clarify that the new language does not impact the expression of personal views by a public official, the use of resources or facilities in the ordinary course of business, and that it is intended only to prohibit the use of targeted, advertisement style mass communications that are reasonably interpreted as an attempt to influence the electorate using taxpayer dollars,” Snyder wrote Wednesday in a letter to lawmakers.
The Detroit News reported Tuesday that some Republican lawmakers who voted for the bill wanted Snyder to veto the legislation.
Other Republicans in the Legislature’s majority party complained the bill was rushed through the Capitol without any debate or analysis. Lawmakers had about 15 minutes to read about 40 pages in amendments containing the most controversial provisions added to the bill in the final hour of the Dec. 16 session.
Local government leaders say they need to be able to publish newsletters explaining ballot language, which is often filled with complex legal terms and definitions.
“When the public looks at a property description on the ballot, no one knows what that means,” said Chris Hackbarth, state affairs director for the Michigan Municipal League. “You need something beyond the wording on the ballot to understand that.”
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and House Speaker Kevin Cotter both support passing clarifying legislation before the March 8 election, Snyder said.
State law already prohibits the use of taxpayer resources to expressly advocate for passage of a property tax or bond issue.
Since 2012, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office has investigated 26 complaints involving the use of local government facilities or employees to influence an election and found 15 violations, state records show.
Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, chair of the House Elections Committee, said Tuesday she would support clarifying the controversial language in the legislation.
“We have to make sure we’re allowing for objective information to be available for voters,” Lyons said.
The Michigan Freedom Fund advocated for stricter regulations on information from local schools and municipalities about ballot issues, McNeilly said.
“I’m very proud the governor wasn’t bullied by a bunch of lying local government officials,” McNeilly said. “What they call educating is never content neutral. This is an abuse that occurs in every millage.”