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House votes to clarify suspended election info law

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The state House on Tuesday approved legislation defining what type of information officials can share with voters about local ballot proposals, clarifying and decriminalizing a section of a new law suspended by a federal judge.

The bill, advanced to the Senate on a mostly party-line vote, would allow local officials to share only “factual” and “neutral” information about ballot proposals by mail, telephone, radio or television.

The controversial law approved in December by the Republican-led Legislature prohibited any taxpayer-funded communications about ballot proposals within 60 days of an election, an attempt to weed out subtle forms of advocacy already prohibited under state law.

U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara suspended the law Feb. 5, ruling local government officials who had sued the state and requested an injunction were likely to succeed on their claim that it was “unconstitutionally vague and thus void.”

Violators would have faced up to a year in prison under the suspended law. The new legislation would instead treat violations as a civil infraction but maintain fines of $1,000 for an individual or $20,000 for a government body.

“The judge made his ruling, asking the Legislature to provide clarity, and I think this bill does provide clarity,” said sponsoring State Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto. “But I think the bill continues to protect taxpayers and makes sure that they are not funding political campaigns.”

The Michigan Municipal League, which supported the lawsuit, remains opposed to the fix-it legislation, said director of state affairs Chris Hackbarth, who added the new statute should be repealed because taxpayer-funded advocacy was already prohibited under state law.

“Nobody has made the case for why the law was changed,” said Hackbarth, noting there were no hearings on the language approved last year after a major revision on the House floor.

State Rep. John Chirkun, D-Roseville, said the proposed fix “is still vague and overhanded, and will result in more litigation.” He argued that it would continue to have a “chilling effect” on local officials and what they could say about proposals important to their communities.

“Let’s save tax dollars and keep this out of the court system,” Chirkun said in a floor speech.

But Lyons, speaking with reporters before the vote, said the new language she proposed was straightforward and understandable.

“These are simple terms with plain meaning, and you don’t need to be a lawyer to know what ‘factual’ and ‘neutral’ means,” she said.

State Rep. John Bizon of Battle Creek was the only Republican to reject the bill, joining all Democrats in opposition.

A floor amendment proposed by Rep. Mike McCready, R-Bloomfield Hills, would have provided election officials with a “rebuttable presumption” if their factual or neutral communications were challenged, but the measure was not approved.

State Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Oronoko Township, called the new bill a compromise “that fulfills the original purpose” of the suspended law.

Pagel was among a group of Republicans who voted for the heavily modified House bill in December but later opposed the law, which he said “went too far” and prevented officials “from carrying out their responsibility to properly inform voters regarding a ballot initiative.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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