GOP lawmakers urge Snyder veto on elections bill

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Some Republican state legislators want Gov. Rick Snyder to veto a bill they voted for that would prohibit local government leaders from distributing factual information about ballot issues using taxpayer resources.

“I’d like him to send it back to us,” said state Rep. Dave Maturen, a freshman Republican from Vicksburg who acknowledges he “didn’t realize all that was in the bill” when he voted last month for it.

School, municipal and district library leaders are heavily lobbying Snyder this week to veto Senate Bill 571, an elections bill that the Republican-controlled Legislature passed during a late night Dec. 16 session before adjourning for the holidays.

But now a small group of GOP legislators has joined the chorus, asking for a second chance to amend or remove a 60-day pre-election ban on disseminating information to voters about property tax renewals or increases and other ballot issues.

“If it was vetoed, we could go back to work on it and perhaps fix it and get a little more time on it,” said Sen. Dale Zorn, R-Ida. “We have to give the tools to our public officials so that they can provide the information to the voting public. I’m afraid this blackout would hinder that.”

Other Republicans in the Legislature’s majority party are stopping short of calling for a veto, but certainly want a redo.

“This deserves far more debate than what we gave it,” said Rep. Mike McCready, R-Bloomfield Hills. “We didn’t get enough information on it.”

After retracing the timing of the bill, McCready said his staff found that House members had 15 minutes to digest 41 pages in amendments added to the bill just before the vote.

“I feel like it wasn’t a great process in terms of substituting a 10- or 12-page bill into a 50-plus-page bill on the floor in 15 minutes,” said Rep. Michael Webber, R-Rochester Hills.

Webber said he’s not advocating that Snyder veto the bill.

“I would just encourage him to really do his due diligence on that and weigh the pros and cons,” he said.

Snyder has until Monday to take action on the legislation.

Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, said Tuesday she would support follow-up legislation to “clarify” what’s an acceptable form of communication between local officials and voters.

“As I read the bill, I do agree there’s a lot of confusion that folks are concerned that they won’t be able to share their personal views,” said Lyons, R-Alto. “If we need to be more clear, we absolutely should go back and do that.”

Maturen said relying on the Legislature to pass a so-called “trailer bill” to clean up the language requires “a lot of faith” on Snyder’s part.

“I’m not sure him passing it and then us trying to pass legislation to modify it is the best approach to it,” he said.

Lyons dismissed criticisms from fellow Republicans that they weren’t informed what the bill would do.

“I would just suggest that members pay more attention in caucus,” she said.

Straight-ticket voting out

On Tuesday, Snyder signed another controversial elections bill eliminating the straight party ticket voting option on general election ballots.

Snyder’s signature of Senate Bill 13 makes Michigan the 41st state to eliminate straight party voting which allows voters, by checking a box at the top of a ballot, to choose all of the candidates from one or the other party.

Snyder and GOP supporters argued it puts the state in line with the great majority of the country and forces voters to consider the merits of individual candidates instead of voting automatically for all Democrats or all Republicans.

Democrats and municipal clerks opposed the GOP-authored bill, arguing that it would lead to longer lines at the polls on Election Day, tramples of voters’ rights and is intended to give Republicans an edge in the voting booth.

But Republican lawmakers included an appropriation of $5 million that they said would help election clerks buy new voting equipment to ease any Election Day issues. The $5 million appropriation makes the new law immune from being overturned by voters in a referendum.

Snyder sent lawmakers a letter on Tuesday urging them to pass Lyons’ House bill allowing voters to cast absentee ballots in person at a clerk’s office with no reason for not being able to make it to the polls on Election Day.

60-day ban controversial

While Democrats claimed ending straight-party voting was an attack on voters’ rights, Snyder has faced more widespread opposition to the ban on local officials distributing public notices on television and radio, and in print media, explaining property tax proposals, school bond issues or changes in a local charter.

“Local officials wouldn’t even be able to tell voters in their newsletter who’s running for city council,” said Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League.

Local government and school leaders held a press conference Tuesday in Lansing at the Michigan Municipal League’s headquarters to denounce the legislation.

State law already prohibits the use of taxpayer resources to expressly advocate for passage of a property tax or bond issue. Since 2012, the secretary of state has investigated 26 complaints involving the use of local government facilities or employees to influence an election and found 15 violations, state records show.

“We’re not solving a problem that exists,” Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly said. “We’re creating a problem.”

Yvonne Caamal Canul, superintendent of the Lansing School District, said the bill would stifle the district’s efforts to educate voters about a major bond proposal the capital city school system is planning to place on the November ballot.

“What this bill essentially does is shackle our public hands while allowing private entities to engage in any misinformation campaign all the way to election day,” Caamal Canul said. “It’s inequitable and quite frankly it’s un-American.”

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Controversial bill

The section of Senate Bill 571 in question:

“Except for an election official in the performance of his or her duties under the Michigan election law, 1954 PA 116, MCL 168.1 to 168.992, a public body, or a person acting for a public body, shall not, during the period 60 days before an election in which a local ballot question appears on a ballot, use public funds or resources for a communication by means of radio, television, mass mailing, or prerecorded telephone message if that communication references a local ballot question and is targeted to the relevant electorate where the local ballot question appears on the ballot.”