Read This Or You May Die

A story published by Crain’s Detroit Business joins the legion of media reports giving a sympathetic ear to local government and school officials condemning a new law restricting their ability to use taxpayer resources to electioneer in favor of tax hike proposals during the 60 days before an election.

For example, Crain’s reports: “Michigan law already made it illegal for cities, school districts and other public bodies to advocate a position on a ballot issue. The bill Snyder signed also rules out the sending of factual information. And that’s what has municipal leaders so concerned.”

The story then quotes one of the law’s critics, Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett, complete with a photo of the mayor.

ForTheRecord says: If Crain’s had looked at mailings Barnett’s own city had sent out, the shortcomings of the earlier electioneering limits would have been immediately apparent. Indeed, the editors might have recognized that their “already illegal” assertion was evidence the previous law was not effective at limiting abuses.

In one instance, while promoting a tax increase labeled as being for public safety, Rochester Hills mailed fliers to residents claiming they could die if the measure was not approved.

“There are always trade-offs in life but this one can mean the difference between life and death as seconds matter in fire department response times,” the flier read.

Crain’s observation that “Michigan law already made it illegal” for cities to advocate for tax hikes is undermined by the reality that the Secretary of State’s enforcement has been weak at best, and its powers to do more are limited.

Specifically, the only previous restrictions on taxpayer-funded electioneering applied to “express advocacy,” which only prohibits campaign material that contains the words "Vote Yes" or a near equivalent.

Other than that, before the new law was signed it was almost anything goes. For example, one complaint against a school district was dismissed with this: “The statute, however, does not require that the information disseminated by a public body be accurate or complete … only that it is factual.”