House votes for less ballot info on school millages

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Five weeks after Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law allowing charter schools to qualify for regional enhancement millages, Michigan’s Republican-led House on Thursday approved a plan that could shorten the ballot but provide voters with less information about where their tax dollars would go.

The legislation would drop a longstanding requirement that local millage proposals list each individual school district that would receive funding. Instead, election clerks could collectively list all recipient school districts as “public schools.”

Democrats blasted the bill an attempt to “cover up” the law Snyder signed on Feb. 14 that will allow publicly funded charter schools to qualify for new or renewed regional enhancement property taxes, which previously were limited to traditional public schools.

“This is not a question of saving space (on the ballot),” said Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township and former high school teacher. “This is a question of transparency, and frankly telling the truth. Because as written, this bill would defraud the people of Michigan by withholding information about their tax dollars and where they’re being used.”

Sponsoring Rep. Jeff Noble, R-Plymouth Township, defended the bill against attacks from Democrats, telling colleagues that local election clerks would still have the option to list all districts that would receive the millage dollars if they choose to.

“I’ve dedicated my life to the truth, and I promise you we would never try to do anything to be underhanded or inappropriate,” he said.

But “public schools are public schools,” Noble said, including traditional schools and charter academies. “Instead of us being the ones that separate the two, let’s bring them together and let those tax dollars go to all public schools in our district.”

The legislation passed in a narrow 56-53 vote, with a handful of Republicans joining minority Democrats in opposition. The Michigan Association of Public School Academies supported the bill in committee, along with the Michigan Association of County Clerks.

Clerks and intermediate school districts asked for the change to “streamline elections,” said House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt. Because charters will now qualify for enhancement millages, lists of eligible schools could grow considerably in some regions.

“If they had to list out every single school on the ballot, it was going to make a mess of the entire ballot process,” Leonard told reporters after the Thursday session.

The measure now heads to the state Senate for further consideration.