Senate Bill 571 censors factual election information

Christopher A. Wigent

In today’s busy world, we need more information about the important things going on around us — not less.

Nobody can deny that quality education is important. Police protection is important. Safe roads, good parks and libraries are important.

And helping taxpayers understand how these vital public goods are going to be delivered or paid for is important too. Which is why many people across Michigan are baffled by the Michigan Legislature’s desire to prevent school districts and other public bodies from distributing factual and unbiased information about ballot proposals within 60 days of the election.

Gov. Rick Snyder should stand for more information and transparency, not less, and veto Senate Bill 571, now before him.

Senate Bill 571 would prohibit a public body, or person acting for a public body from using public resources for factual communications referencing local ballot questions by radio, television, mass mailing, or prerecorded telephone message for 60 days prior to an election.

This bill is, in part, the result of a lack of information. The version of the bill approved by the House and Senate never had a single hearing. In the dark of night in the waning hours of the legislative session, SB 571 went from 12 pages long to 53 pages long — and then was approved by a majority of lawmakers before anybody had a chance to testify about the impact of this provision.

When elected officials put on the ballot something important — often a tax law change — they need to provide basic information about the measure to voters. On a millage election, that may mean letting voters know that homeowners will see no tax increase. It may mean letting voters know how much an average property owner will pay. It may mean telling voters how the money will be spent, or how long the millage might be for, or what conditions would lead to the millage ending.

That may mean a mailing, having a handout available for the local Chamber of Commerce meeting, or making phone calls to registered voters to give them facts and remind them of an upcoming election. It could be placing an ad in the local weekly paper, or, in the rare case when a reporter is available, asking a superintendent or some other official person on the public payroll to talk to a television or, newspaper reporter who has been assigned a story.

No more under this legislation.

This is a form of censorship, plain and simple. Already on the books are strong laws prohibiting local governments and schools from spending public funds for propaganda. Senate Bill 571 makes it illegal to share factual information.

Why would we not want voters to have factual information? Facts are what people use to make decisions.

So we hope you will join us in asking Snyder to live up to his promise of being transparent and open — and stand up for voters by ensuring they get the maximum amount of information before they go to polling places, including factual and unbiased information from schools and local governments, and other public bodies.

Christopher A. Wigent is executive director of Michigan Association of School Administrators.