We get it. Republican lawmakers want to limit future tax hikes and ease the burden on taxpayers. That’s not a bad goal. But an amendment that got added at the last minute to a fairly innocuous campaign finance bill went too far in tying the hands of school districts and local government that want to raise money for various projects.
On the last day of 2015 legislative session, Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, introduced an amendment “prohibiting school districts and local governments from sending any communications to residents that mention an upcoming property tax millage or other local ballot measure within 60 days of the vote.”
The Senate signed off on the addition and now it sits on Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk. This is an issue Snyder probably would rather not deal with, and he should send the bill back to lawmakers and have them take out the amendment. He has until Jan. 11 to make that call.
Of course, Democrats and the public school officials, among others, aren’t too pleased that this provision slipped through the Legislature. And they’ve been very vocal in their opposition. Schools already blame the state for not giving them enough money. Making it harder for districts to raise money for infrastructure improvements or new school buildings would only make matters worse.
GOP lawmakers say they are simply responding to patterns of abuse when it comes to schools and local governments soliciting money from residents —especially when those materials are created and distributed on the taxpayer dime. And anyone who lives close to a school district knows just how persistent school officials can be in getting the word out about supporting a tax hike.
Yet using such a blunt instrument in the form of this bill to prevent any kind of educational materials about a millage two months before a vote is a mistake.
Even the education reform group Education Trust-Midwest, which normally wouldn’t get involved with a campaign finance bill, sent a letter to Snyder last week asking him to veto Senate Bill 571.
“If signed by Governor Snyder, this bill would have a chilling effect on Michigan families’ access to important information about their public schools. School officials would be prohibited from educating voters on millages, bonds, and all other local ballot initiatives, for two months before each election,” the letter states.
The same is true for libraries and police departments —any local government entity that wants to make the case for a tax increase.
It’s worth noting that the bill wouldn’t prevent citizens — or teachers — from printing and distributing information about a millage proposal, as long as it’s done on their own time and expense. So it wouldn’t limit anyone’s First Amendment rights.
As Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst for the Mackinac Center, recently wrote about the bill: “Current state law is very loose about public entities using tax dollars to advocate for more tax dollars. If people want to argue for higher taxes, they are free to do so — but they should use their own money.”
But Snyder should send this bill back to lawmakers and ask them to take out the amendment. And if lawmakers want to revisit the issue next year, they should. But the matter deserves much more debate.