House committee OKs bill clarifying ballot proposal law
LANSING (AP) – A group of Michigan lawmakers advanced a measure intended to address criticism that a new law stops public officials from informing voters about ballot proposals.
The House Elections Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would allow public officials to distribute “factual” and “strictly neutral” information about ballot proposals, including the ballot language and the date of the election, regardless of how close it is to the election.
The measure now moves to the House floor for debate or possible revision. It’s meant to clarify a bill Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law earlier this year that prevents libraries, schools and local governments from sending any information about ballot proposals 60 days before an election, which many public officials considered to be a gag order.
Some school and local government officials filed a lawsuit last week, saying the law restricts their free speech rights.
“I want to make sure that we are not allowing for anything other than facts and neutral information at the expense of the taxpayers,” the sponsor of the law, Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, said Wednesday of the new proposal.
Lyons said her original intent was to stop public bodies from providing biased information at the expense of taxpayers, a point that Snyder echoed in a letter last month, stating that it’s intended “only to prohibit the use of targeted, advertisement style mass communications that are reasonably interpreted as an attempt to influence the electorate using taxpayer dollars.”
The new bill is supposed to clarify that intent. But critics including Reps. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, say the bill is too vague, and could lead to future lawsuits. Irwin voted against moving the bill to the House floor, and Hoadley didn’t vote.
“My trouble with this is, I don’t really know what this means,” Irwin said during the committee. “Some people read it and think one thing, some people read it and think another thing, and that’s always bad for the law,” he said after the committee adjourned.
An advocacy group called the Michigan Municipal League said the best way to clarify the law is to simply repeal it.
“Michigan already has a law on the books banning local governments and school districts from using public resources to advocate for or against a ballot measure,” said Chris Hackbarth, the group’s director of state affairs.