New Taxpayer-Funded Electioneering Restrictions Anger Local Government Tax Hikers

But 1st Amendment gives rights to people, not governments

The superintendent of the Lansing public school district really doesn’t like a new law that prohibits public schools and municipalities from sending out taxpayer-funded messages referencing local tax hike ballot proposals during the 60 days before the election. According to the Lansing State Journal, the school official said the law is “un-American” and “violates the principles of a functioning democracy.”

Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul made the comments Jan. 5 at a news conference about the proposal, which was part of Senate Bill 571, now Public Act 269 of 2015 after being signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder on Jan. 6.

The comment raises questions about the mindset of public officials who think it’s acceptable to use taxpayer dollars to promote their agendas, including tax hikes, while those who oppose them must spend their own money or seek voluntary contributions from others.

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“What this bill essentially does is shackle our public hands while allowing private entities to engage in any misinformation campaign all the way to the election date,” Canul said. “It's inequitable, and quite frankly, it’s un-American.”

Canul and other local government officials who are expressing similar views don't seem to realize that nothing prohibits proponents of a ballot measure from also seeking private contributions to pay for their electioneering, subject to the same disclosure requirements and contribution caps that apply to other private citizens.

Amanda Fisher, assistant director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said there are many public school advocacy associations that have resources to help school districts in these pursuits.

“They are more than welcome to raise money to promote their point of view,” Fisher said. “I don’t know if they realize that. They should be able to promote that, but not with taxpayer dollars.”

The Lansing School District has a history of electioneering for its tax hike proposals.

In 2009, the district mailed fliers to voters about a millage it wanted with the following message: “Lansing schools have a plan for rainy days. And it’s a pretty cut and dry decision.” Then the flier read: “Please vote on November 2 on the Building and Site Sinking Fund. PRESERVE OUR HERITAGE. FUND OUR FUTURE.”

A district spokesman said at that time the phrase “FUND OUR FUTURE” was just “a slogan.”

The mailing also stated, “This fund would provide much needed funding that would be dedicated to renovating and repairing Lansing school buildings, contributing to a more nurturing learning environment for kids.”

The pamphlet did not disclose how much the tax increase would cost property owners, and was typical of the type of taxpayer-funded communications that municipalities and schools send out to promote their tax hike measures.

The Lansing district is doing it this year, even as allies claim there is no problem and the new law is not needed. The district has placed a $120 million debt and tax proposal on the May 3, 2016, ballot that it calls “The Lansing Pathway Promise.” On its website, the district makes claims like this: “The Lansing Pathway Promise will prepare every Lansing student to become career and college ready in order to be successful and responsible citizens of the 21st Century.”

Fisher said there is a difference between facts and rhetoric.

"They put in all this spin coming from their viewpoint and it’s not a cold-hard fact," Fisher said. "There are facts and then there are wishes and spin. It really is a spin issue."

Lansing School District Spokesman Bob Kolt didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

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