How Local Governments Advocate for Tax Increases

Senate bill 571 looks to curb abuses

The Michigan Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 571, which, among other things, would, “prohibit schools and local governments from sending any communication to residents that mentions an upcoming property tax millage election within 60 days of the vote.”

Gov. Snyder has yet to sign the bill. Local governments, school districts, and some politicians have geared up a campaign to urge a veto of the legislation.

Their complaints are often based on two misunderstandings. The first is that is a restriction on the free speech of public officials and employees. But public entities are funded by tax dollars and the government can limit the ways money is being spent by its employees without violating the First Amendment. The second concern is that this bill is solving a problem that doesn't exist — but that concern does not match up to the historical record.

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Current state law is very loose about public entities using tax dollars to advocate for more tax dollars. Generally, officials can provide any information they want, no matter how biased, as long as they don’t explicitly say “vote yes.” That’s how local governments and school districts have repeatedly and consistently advocated for higher taxes with public dollars while perhaps not technically violating the law.

For example, as noted in stories covered by Michigan Capitol Confidential:

  • Muskegon County sent a flier to voters for a $6.7 million property tax hike in February 2015 which stated, “Repairing our roads is costly, but if everybody pitches in to help with this 1.5 mill proposal, it’s not much at all.”
  • Traverse City schools mailed a flier to residents that said, "Traverse City Area Public Schools is asking voters to support the continuation of TCAPS' long-term capital infrastructure improvement plan by authoring a bond proposal on November 6, 2012."
  • In November 2014, Pinckney Community Schools used school mailing lists to say the district was “asking voters to renew” a multimillion-dollar millage.
  • Saline High School posted a video on its website in 2011 that featured a school official saying, “I’d like to ask for your support for our upcoming bond extension.”
  • Lansing School District sent out a flier shortly before a bond vote that read, “Preserve Our Heritage. Fund Our Future.”

As a watchdog of state and local governments, the Mackinac Center has seen repeated examples — many more than what is listed above — of public entities using taxpayer dollars to advocate for more money for themselves. If people want to argue for higher taxes, they are free to do so — but they should use their own money.

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