News Story

Schools and Locals Electioneer for Tax Hikes, State Nods

Current state law doesn't require tax-funded information be 'accurate' or 'complete'

Advocacy groups and some newspapers are attacking a bill that would restrict the information local governments and school districts are allowed to send to voters within 60 days of a local tax hike election, and urging Gov. Rick Snyder to veto it.

The provision is in Senate Bill 571, which passed the House and Senate in December (and which also contains many unrelated election-law provisions).

For example, the Battle Creek Enquirer’s editorial page wrote this: “The bill’s backers say it’s aimed at preventing government entities from using taxpayer dollars to influence voters. That's pretense. Such activity is already illegal, and where those abuses occur (rare at best), they are easily and effectively handled through existing enforcement mechanisms.”

To the extent violations are rare, it isn't because school districts and local governments don't actively electioneer for their tax increase proposals. It is instead because the current law's definition of what kind of electioneering is prohibited is extremely narrow.

Also, before an alleged violation is reviewed by the state elections bureau, an official complaint must be filed. Given the broad scope of electioneering activities allowed under past rulings from the bureau, it's difficult for a municipality to be found in violation.

Specifically, unless a school or local government engages in “express advocacy,” which means explicitly calling for a “yes” or “no” vote, the interpretation of current law means that it's pretty much anything goes.

In 2011, Michigan Capitol Confidential reviewed all the campaign finance act complaints filed with the state from 2006 to 2010. Those findings are worth revisiting, certainly in the light of claims by the Battle Creek Enquirer and other media outlets that the current law is working and violations are rare.

During those five years, just two school districts were cited for violating the law that prohibits using district resources to promote a yes vote on a bond election. In both cases, the penalty was a $100 fine. But a closer look at the complaints that were rejected raises serious concerns amount how much tax-funded electioneering is allowed by the state.

For example, the Berkley School District reported in a 2010 newsletter that the cost of a debt proposal (bond) would be $167 million. Residents filed a complaint that this amount didn’t include interest and that the true cost was therefore $430 million. The district did not mention this in its newsletter.

Yet state officials ruled that the district was not in violation of the law: “The statute, however, does not require that the information disseminated by a public body be accurate or complete … only that it is factual.”

In 2006, Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools mailed a districtwide newsletter that said, “voters can vote yes for one, two or three (bond) proposals.”

The state said that, too, was not a violation of the law, and explained, “Although the article neglected to mention that readers may also vote ‘no’ on any of the ballot proposals, the Department regards the quoted sentence as a statement of fact.”

In 2006, the Macomb County School Boards Association and the Macomb County Schools Superintendent Association used taxpayer dollars to mail a pamphlet claiming that a $565 million tax increase called Proposal 5 would “boost Michigan’s employment rate and economy.”

The resident who filed the complaint said most of the money would cover pension costs and there was no proof the tax increase would add jobs or improve the economy. But the state ruled the pamphlet “simply presents factual information concerning education funding and the potential impact if the ballot question is adopted.”

And in 2007, Southgate Community School District mailed out an informational flier in advance of a bond election that contained these statements:

  • “Securing a better future for Southgate students …”
  • “Let’s make our Southgate schools safer and better …”
  • “To stay competitive in the global economy, we must provide our students access to the latest educational technology systems and updated computer workstations …”
  • “Security at school is a win-win for everyone.”
  • “Maintaining a safe, secure learning environment will enable school personnel to teach our Southgate students to the fullest of their ability.”

The state ruled that none of these violated the law.

“A sensible reader may be left with the distinct impression that the informational flyer contains an unambiguous appeal for voters’ support,” elections bureau officials wrote in their response. “It does not contain words of express advocacy.”

Local government and school officials across the state know very well how much leeway the state has given them.

For example, in 2011, Saline High School posted a video in which a school employee said, “I’d like to ask for your support for our upcoming bond extension on Feb. 22.”

Scott Graden, then the superintendent at Saline, defended the comments as being within what the law allows.

“I know that ‘express advocacy’ has been clearly defined as the use of the word ‘yes’ by school staff other than the superintendent,” Graden wrote in a 2011 email.

Graden did say he would take down the video and remove the comment so it would not “create confusion.”

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.