News Story

Use Taxpayer Money to Call for Higher Taxes? Not Within Two Months of the Vote

New law: Schools, cities, can't call for tax hikes 60 days before an election

About a month before Muskegon County voters were to decide a $6.7 million property tax hike in February, the county road commission sent out a flier that stated, “Repairing our roads is costly, but if everybody pitches in to help with this 1.5 mill proposal, it’s not much at all.”

Such taxpayer-funded, almost-electioneering newsletters, bulletins, phone calls and broadcasts in the weeks before a local property tax or ballot measure will cease if Gov. Rick Snyder signs a bill passed on Dec. 16. Among other things, it contains a provision that makes it unlawful for schools and local governments to even mention an upcoming ballot measure within 60 days of the vote.

Although the state’s campaign finance law already prohibits municipalities and school districts from expressly advocating a “yes” or “no” vote on a particular ballot measure, many of them find ways to influence voters without crossing the forbidden “express advocacy” line. So based on the Michigan Secretary of State’s past rulings, the Muskegon road commission would not have faced any consequences for its pro-tax hike mailing. That would change under the measure pending before the governor.

Another example of the kind of behavior that would no longer be allowed occurred in 2011, when Saline High School posted a video on its website featuring a school official saying, “I’d like to ask for your support for our upcoming bond extension.” The district superintendent said that wasn’t a violation of express advocacy because the word "yes" was not used.

Yet another example comes from Lansing. In 2010, the school district sent out a flier shortly before a bond millage that read, “Preserve Our Heritage. Fund Our Future.” A school district spokesman said that it was just a slogan.

Under the bill now heading to Snyder’s desk (Senate Bill 571), doing what those districts did within 60 days of an election would earn a fine of up to $1,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a municipality.

“This legislation represents an important step to end the practice by certain local units of government to use taxpayer funds to finance a public relations scheme in order to pass millages and bond proposals,” said Eric Doster, the general counsel for the state Republican party, in an email.

The ban on taxpayer funded electioneering is just one of many election law changes in Senate Bill 571.

The Michigan Association of School Administrators sent out an alert asking residents to urge Snyder to veto the legislation.

"The legislation would have a major impact on the ability of local governments and school districts to say anything about local millage and bond questions," the MASA posted on their website.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include comments from the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.