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Late night bill raises fear of stifling voter education

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — School leaders, municipal officials and Democrats are urging the governor to veto late-night legislation they say clamps a virtual gag order on local officials and may curtail union efforts to raise money for political causes.

A Senate bill enhanced with some 40 pages of last-minute amendments “would severely hamper efforts to educate voters on local initiatives such as millages, millage renewals or bonds,” the Michigan Association of School Boards said in a letter urging Gov. Rick Snyder to reject it.

The Republican majority pushed the bill through both houses of the Legislature just before adjourning for the year Wednesday night.

It came close on the heels of another bill Democrats hate: eliminating the option of straight-party voting in Michigan. That GOP-sponsored bill, also headed to the governor’s desk, is seen by Democrats as a cynical effort to lengthen lines and suppress voting in urban areas.

Democrats howled about the speed with which Republicans passed what had been a noncontroversial bill suddenly spiked with added provisions.

Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, called it “an awful bunch of legislation ... rammed through in the dead of night.”

“It’s sad; there’s a certain arrogance of power that we’ve seen in this (Republican) majority,” Bieda said. “This is such overreach, a Satan’s child of campaign finance changes.”

Republicans see things differently.

“We were working late as we had done all week,” said Gideon D’Assandro, press secretary to House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant. “It’s odd to hear them complain that it was done quickly, since the Dems were also complaining that we were standing around for so long working on the bills.”

On Wednesday evening, it appeared that only those who wrote the added language in Senate Bill 571 — boosting what had been a 12-page bill to 52 pages in less than an hour — had a clear picture of what it does. But at least two controversial provisions have emerged in post-passage analysis:

■A public body can’t use taxpayer money or resources for “communication by means of radio, television, mass mailing, or prerecorded telephone message if that communication references a local ballot question” within 60 days of a local election, according to the Association of School Boards.

■Republicans say unions would be blocked from using payroll deductions to receive money from members for the political causes they are backing.

Under current law, school administrators and staff can’t use public money or resources to push for a positive or negative vote on an issue, but can use resources “to educate our voters,” Association of School Boards Executive Director Don Wotruba wrote in his letter to Snyder.

“We communicate with all voters of the district, not just parents, to explain what their tax dollars will be used for and how it will affect them,” he wrote. “This new section would end our ability to be transparent and informative prior to an election.”

Michigan Municipal League state affairs director Chris Hackbarth blogged that the narrowed restrictions “seem to put every public-access broadcast of a city council meeting at risk. There is also no allowance for a public broadcast of a debate or voter forum, even if that forum is hosted by a third party,” he said.

‘Educating’ debated

Republicans claim local public officials consistently have circumvented legal provisions to promote revenue issues.

“Educating” really means “essentially running campaigns on taxpayers’ dollars,” charged GOP strategist Greg McNeilly, who also heads the Michigan Freedom Fund.

The legislation is a “modest attempt” to rein that in, said McNeilly, whose organization was founded by the powerful DeVos family of West Michigan. “Get-out-the-vote ought to be done by a regulated (privately-funded) election committee, not government,” he said.

“Under (the bill), members of a public body can still advocate for or against millages all they want, as long as they use their own time and their own resources to do it,” D’Assandro added. “The public body also still has the option of joining a trade association (Michigan Municipal League, for example) to advocate in elections.”

As for the possibility the law will restrict union dues collecting, D’Assandro said Michigan campaign finance rules prohibit corporations from making expenditures to benefit political action committees — organizations that raise money privately to influence elections or legislation.

PACs “have gotten around this in the past by reimbursing the corporation ahead of time so their expenditure (running a collection system for the union) does not technically qualify as an in-kind contribution,” he said.

The bill, he said, eliminates “the ability of PACs to play games with this money and get around state law and reporting requirements. Eliminating this loophole brings transparency to the PAC funding,” D’Assandro said.

‘No loophole’

To former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, the legislation sounds like an effort to unbalance rules that have treated corporations and unions alike.

Brewer, an attorney who frequently represents Democratic election causes, said he hadn’t yet analyzed the densely-worded bill but had heard plenty about it by Friday.

“There’s no loophole,” Brewer said. “Corporations and unions can use payroll deduction to collect voluntary contributions to their PACs. This sounds like another anti-union campaign finance law.”

Snyder’s office was non-commital about his intentions regarding the legislation Friday.

“That bill hasn’t been formally presented to the governor at this point,” spokesman Dave Murray said. “Once the legislation lands on his desk, the governor will be able to give it a thorough review before determining whether it should be signed into law.”