How to Prevent Public Officials From Advocating With Taxpayer Dollars

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill that restricts school districts and local governments from using taxpayer dollars to advocate for tax increases. The law limits what public officials can say and do within 60 days of an election.

The need for this reform is easy to see. Even though it is technically illegal for local officials to use taxpayer resources to advocate for a particular position on a proposal, we have documented incident after incident through our news website, Michigan Capitol Confidential, where local governments were inappropriately using taxpayer resources to encourage voters to approve of hiking taxes on their neighbors. 

For example, the Muskegon Road Commission sent out a flier asking citizens to “pitch in” with a road millage hike they called “the solution” for fixing their roads. Saline High School posted a video featuring a school administrator who “ask[ed] for [voters’] support” on a bond election. The Lansing School District told its taxpayers to “[p]reserve our heritage” and “[f]und our future” for one bond proposal, and it even bought a Super Bowl ad for another. Lake Orion Schools sent out an email to all its employees and asked them to make phone calls to local voters concerning a bond proposal. Do you think any of these employees gave voters on the other end of the line anything but a rosy view of this proposal?

Or consider the superintendent for Pinckney Community Schools, who used the district’s email list (which would normally be used to communicate important information to parents) to ask “voters to renew” a bond request. Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools said in a newsletter that “voters can vote yes for one, two or three (bond) proposals.” The city of Rochester Hills wanted more money for police and fire and said a no vote might “mean the difference between life and death.” The Berkley School District was allowed by the state to understate more than $260 million in tax increases in a newsletter. The Macomb County School Boards Association and Macomb County Schools Superintendent Association sent out a pamphlet saying a $565 million tax increase would “boost Michigan’s employment rate and the economy.” The Southgate Community School District mailed a flier that said a millage would “secure a better future.”

Every one of these instances was supported by taxpayer dollars. And no public official was reprimanded or punished for engaging in taxpayer-funded advocacy.

So why don’t these public officials get in trouble? Because the previous law contained giant loopholes that allowed government officials to dance all over the fuzzy line between educating voters about a proposal and explicitly advocating for a certain outcome. The only clear prohibition was that they could not use the words “vote yes.” Nearly everything else was fair game.

The controversial part of the new law says, 

Except for an election official in the performance of his or her duties … 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.

Many school districts and local governments expressed outrage and turned to the courts. Shortly after the bill went into effect, a judge placed an injunction on the bill because of confusion over what public employees were allowed to do or say.

A measure passed by the House and now in a Senate committee guts the taxpayer protections of the new law. House Bill 5219 would strike the 60-day limit and would allow public officials to “provide a fair presentation of facts” as long as they do not encourage people to vote yes or no, as determined by a “reasonable interpretation.”

This bill goes too far in the other direction. It would create a new fuzzy line between “educating the public” and “persuading the public” — one that local officials will repeatedly challenge and that will provide no meaningful standard for holding them accountable. A better bill would clarify that government officials, if asked, could provide citizens with the date of an election and the exact language of the proposal within 60 days of an election. But that’s it. The standard should be that if it’s not information a government official could provide a voter waiting in line at a polling place, it shouldn’t be allowed.

Using taxpayer money to go beyond that provides an unfair advantage to government entities. If teachers, librarians, city administrators, superintendents or anyone else wants to advocate for a tax increase, they should absolutely be allowed to. They simply have to do so on their own time and with their own money, like the rest of us.