Taxpayer Funded Electioneering in Full Swing Before May 2 Tax Votes

Officials claim messages ‘presenting factual information’ (wink, wink)

In 2014, the West Bloomfield School District gave fifth-graders an assignment: write letters encouraging residents to approve two property tax millage levies that were up for renewal.

One of the letters was reported to the Michigan Secretary of State as a violation of campaign finance law because it stated: “Please remember to vote on February 25th for the school millage renewal.”

The state elections bureau investigated and found there was reason to believe the school district had committed a violation.

The result: The district denied any wrongdoing or violation, insisting that publishing the letter was merely an oversight. The district promised to not use public resources in the future to advance a political campaign.

The elections bureau closed the case and said the problem had been resolved.

Dozens of school districts across the state will put property tax renewals or increases before voters next Tuesday, May 2. Many are delivering pre-election pitches that clearly advocate for a yes vote but nevertheless stay within the law by avoiding a forbidden phrase: “Vote yes.”

According to state election officials, using those words would bring a district into “express advocacy,” which is explicitly not allowed. Outside that narrow restriction, though, it appears that districts have a great deal of leeway.

The Jackson County Intermediate School District will ask voters to renew a special education property tax next week. Its website said, “The Jackson County ISD, along with all districts in the county, is proposing that voters sustain support for the current millage rate, and renew the current Special Education millage rate of 1.55 mills.”

When asked about that language, Jackson County ISD Superintendent Kevin Oxley said in an email it wasn’t the district’s intent to sway voters to a “yes” vote.

“We just wanted people to know this is not an increase, just maintaining what has been done in the past,” Oxley wrote. “Still, we will take it down immediately. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”

As of Sunday, the website said, “The Jackson County ISD, along with all districts in the county, is proposing that voters renew [the] current Special Education millage rate of 1.55 mills. There is no new or additional tax being proposed.”

Eric Doster, general counsel for the Michigan Republican Party and an expert on election law, said that given how narrowly the law is defined – only “express advocacy” is absolutely prohibited – it’s likely neither version crosses the line.

“As with all of these pieces, the message is to vote ‘yes’ without saying ‘vote yes,’” Doster said in an email.

In another example, earlier this year the West Bloomfield School District said it would “demystify” what it called “confusing” ballot language for its voters.

The district released a 12-page flyer that said, “The WBSD community can invest $120 million in updates, renovation and construction with a half-mill reduction in the school tax rate!”

The document explained that the tax renewal, if approved, would have the positive effects of:
— “Attracting new families to our community.”
— “Enhancing residential property values by having up-to-date school facilities.”
— “Assuring that school facilities are upgraded, renovated, and kept in good repair.”

Jenison Public Schools, meanwhile, used its website to warn voters of the negative consequences of turning down a millage request: “This would have a dramatic impact on the quality of educational programming offered to our students and could negatively affect property values.”

At the end of 2015, the state enacted a law to halt taxpayer-funded electioneering. It prohibited local governments and school districts from referencing a tax or other initiative they place on the ballot in the 60 days before the election.

Local officials sued, and a federal judge issued an injunction against the new law. Rather than fight to defend the reform, the Michigan Secretary of State accepted an agreement with the plaintiffs to effectively let the new law become a dead letter.

Last year, several bills were introduced to revise the law, while defenders of taxpayer- funded electioneering claimed that current law ensures that municipalities are being evenhanded in their tax hike presentations.

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor, for example, said in the Michigan Daily the suspended law would have prevented municipalities from “presenting factual information.”

The Michigan Association of School Boards drafted a model resolution for city councils to use, stating that existing laws “already prohibit the use of public funds to advocate for or against ballot issues.”

Mount Pleasant City Manager Nancy Ridley said in the Morning Sun that if government couldn’t provide citizens with information, “we are not quite sure who would.”

“There is already a law that says local government can’t use tax money to promote ballot proposals,” she said.

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.