Schools and local governments drive trucks through election-law loophole
Voters in more than 200 communities across the state of Michigan go to the polls today to vote on property tax increases and extensions.
Many tax measures were placed on the ballot by school districts that have been running electioneering campaigns that tell just one side of the story.
There are 217 local elections today in Michigan, the vast majority being tax hike proposals for public school districts.
A typical example of tax hike electioneering that skirts the edge of state law is the campaign run by Kent Intermediate School District, which is asking voters to approved a 0.9-mill, 10-year tax increase for a new debt issue (bond).
One question on the Frequently Ask Questions section of the district’s website asks, “Why is this proposal necessary?”
The district’s answer: “For years, West Michigan school districts have taken steps to tighten their belts, make cuts, find efficiencies, reduce staff and consolidate services. Despite these efforts, too many school districts and communities continue to struggle to provide the quality education students deserve.”
Given that kind of language, it’s no surprise the FAQ ignores highly relevant information that would provide important context: The Kent ISD’s total annual revenues have risen from $243.3 million in 2011 to $265.2 million in 2016, according to its annual financial report. That nearly $22 million increase is about $6 million above what inflation would have provided over those five years.
School district often promote tax hikes with statements that describe in glowing terms the benefits that higher taxes would bring to the community.
For instance, Ann Arbor Public Schools is running a 4 1/2-minute video that promotes a tax measure by showing parents and students talking about how the money will be spent.
“Strong communities are known for their quality public schools,” says Ann Arbor Superintendent Jeanice Swift in the video. “Now, we have a great opportunity together to carry forward Ann Arbor’s long lasting investment in our public schools. Please vote on May 2 and thank you for supporting our more than 17,500 current students and the generations of students still to come through the doors of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.”
The district fails to inform viewers that its total annual revenue rose from $232.4 million in 2011 to $253.2 million in 2016. That nearly $21 million increase is about $5 million above what inflation would have provided over those five years.
A law was passed in 2016 that prohibited schools and local governments from “referencing” a ballot proposal they place on the ballot during the 60 days before an election. Municipal officials sued and the law was eventually set aside by a federal judge under a deal made by between the Michigan Secretary of State and plaintiffs.
“Until the Legislature takes action to protect taxpayers, then schools and other local governments are able to hide behind the campaign finance loophole to spend public tax dollars to raise even more public tax dollars,” said Eric Doster, the general counsel for the state Republican Party. Doster has worked on state electioneering issues.
He continued, “Every year, schools and other local government waste millions of dollars to educate voters why they need to vote ‘yes’ on these millages without actually using the words ‘vote yes’. The ordinary citizen lacks the funds to compete with the public relations machine of a school, library, or city.”
“Only the Legislature can act to stop this abuse of power and waste of precious public resources,” Doster concluded.