New ballot proposal law needs to be ironed out

A recently signed law has resulted in the City of Dowagiac becoming one of several municipalities around the state that now find themselves unable to communicate with voters about the decisions they will be making at the polls later this year.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed Senate Bill 571 into law last week. Among the many provisions of the bill is a clause that states that local governments and school districts may now no longer use public funds to discuss upcoming ballot proposals through radio, television, mass mailing or prerecorded telephone messages 60 days or less before an election.

In essence, this means that Michigan municipalities can no longer send out materials that would inform voters of the facts of a particular ballot proposal in the final weeks leading up to election day — the time period when many voters decide as to whether or not they support a particular proposal.

In the case of Dowagiac, a ballot proposal that will ask voters as to whether or not to amend the city charter to change the position of city clerk from an elected to appointed position is scheduled to appear on the ballot of the March 8 primary elections. While city officials had prepared informational materials about the ballot proposal for distribution through its monthly newsletter, they were scheduled for distribution 30 days before Election Day — well after the newly passed bill’s 60-day blackout period.

Dowagiac is not the only municipality impacted by this bill. According to the Michigan Municipal League, more than 100 cities, villages, townships, school districts, counties and other state entities had proposals slated to go before voters in March. Now these entities cannot distribute information about the proposals.

While we support the intention behind the act of saving the taxpayers money that would have otherwise gone to TV or radio spots discussing impending ballot proposals, we also feel there are other issues presented by the law that should be addressed.

Our primary concern is that this law was enacted immediately, despite the fact that many municipalities, including Dowagiac, find themselves without the ability to distribute materials that have already been prepared for the March election. The money this act was supposed to save has already been spent in these cases — so neither the taxpayer nor the municipality benefits from this law’s effect on the March election.

Also, while there’s no doubt that some governments or school boards pay for expensive ad time on TV or radio to discuss ballot initiatives, many, including the City of Dowagiac, disseminate information about ballot proposals through publications they already produce on a monthly basis, through newsletters and similar publications. So, again, barring municipalities from sharing objective information about ballot proposals doesn’t result in real savings to taxpayers.

In our opinion, this law should be amended to at least allow governments to publish information about ballot proposals in the March 8 election.

With the Michigan Municipal League and other organizations denouncing this bill, and even Gov. Snyder writing a letter addressing the more problematic aspects of the piece of legislation he had just signed into law, we are hopeful that our lawmakers will work to address the problems it has created. If not for the sake of voters heading to the voting booth in March, then for the millions of Michiganders who will decide the future of our state — and local communities — for years to come.

 

Opinions expressed are those of the editorial board consisting of Publisher Michael Caldwell and editors Ambrosia Neldon, Craig Haupert, Ted Yoakum and Scott Novak.

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