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Local governments unhappy with last-minute "gag rule" in campaign bill

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Local governments in Michigan are not happy about some last-minute language added to a bill that just passed the state legislature.

Senate Bill 571 is mostly about campaign finance issues.

But tucked in at the very end of the bill is a provision that cities and townships argue amounts to a “gag rule” on them.

It bans any public body or public official, except for “an election official in the performance of his or her duties,” from using public funds to issue any kind of communication that “references a local ballot question, and is targeted to the relevant electorate where the local ballot question appears on the ballot,” in the 60-day run-up to an election.

Chris Hackbarth of the Michigan Municipal League says that’s very problematic.

It would seem to preclude local governments from, for example, sending out mailers providing supplementary or clarifying information about local millages, school bonds, or charter amendments.

“You cannot communicate with voters about even the most basic, objective information about a ballot question,” Hackbarth says. “Objective information that provides critical context for a voter.”

There are additional potential problems, Hackbarth says. Would the bill prohibit local government officials from sharing their views about local ballot measures on public access television? Would government-sponsored community newsletters with election day reminders be considered violations?

Existing law already bans public bodies from spending money to campaign on behalf of particular issues. Hackbarth says these additional restrictions “basically put a gag order on local units.”

The Michigan Municipal League and other local government agencies are urging Gov. Snyder to veto the bill.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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