As the House and Senate were winding down the final minutes of session for the calendar year late Wednesday night, a seemingly innocuous Campaign Finance Act bill was amended to include over 40 pages of new language and quickly passed back and forth between the two chambers for approval right before they adjourned. Senate Bill 571 originally passed the Senate unanimously in November. Late on Wednesday night, as the House brought this bill up for consideration a substitute version was adopted that increased the 12-page bill to 53 pages in length and introduced new language into Section 57 of the act that deals with permissible and prohibited activities by public bodies on election-related issues. This language was inserted without any notice to the League or other local government organizations and moved without any public testimony, let alone public awareness of what was in the new version of the bill.
The new language in Section 57 states:
(3) EXCEPT FOR AN ELECTION OFFICIAL IN THE PERFORMANCE OF HIS OR HER DUTIES UNDER THE MICHIGAN ELECTION LAW, 1954 PA 116, MCL 168.1 TO 168.992, A PUBLIC BODY, OR A PERSON ACTING FOR A PUBLIC BODY, SHALL NOT, DURING THE PERIOD 60 DAYS BEFORE AN ELECTION IN WHICH A LOCAL BALLOT QUESTION APPEARS ON A BALLOT, USE PUBLIC FUNDS OR RESOURCES FOR A COMMUNICATION BY MEANS OF RADIO, TELEVISION, MASS MAILING, OR PRERECORDED TELEPHONE MESSAGE IF THAT COMMUNICATION REFERENCES A LOCAL BALLOT QUESTION AND IS TARGETED TO THE RELEVANT ELECTORATE WHERE THE LOCAL BALLOT QUESTION APPEARS ON THE BALLOT.
There are a number of key concerns that immediately surface when reading this new language.
- Already existing language in this section provides for an allowance for elected and appointed officials to express their views without fear of violating the act. This new subsection does not appear to account for that allowance and could be read as a ban on freedom of speech.
- The prohibition on any communication by television that references a local ballot question would seem to put every public access broadcast of a city council meeting at risk for violating this new provision. There is also no allowance for a public broadcast of a debate or voter forum, even if that forum is hosted by a third party.
- Community newsletters or potentially even election day reminders that are mailed to residents could be banned under this language.
- Because this language specifically bans communication on only local ballot questions, the provision creates inconsistent treatment between communicating with residents on statewide ballot questions versus local questions.
- Any violation of this section puts a community at risk for a state fine of up to $20,000.
This language puts an undue burden on communities and their residents, blocking access to unbiased, objective communication on the local issues that matter most to the residents in every community in Michigan. Please contact the Governor’s office to express your concern over this new provision.
Chris Hackbarth is the League’s director of state affairs. He can be reached at 517-908-0304and [email protected].