Simply poorly crafted legislation

On Jan. 6, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill into law that has municipal leaders of all descriptions, including school district officials around the state, quite concerned.

We think this concern is well placed.

Snyder signed SB 571 into law and almost immediately began backtracking and promising to “tweak” sections of the bill being understood by many observers as a “gag law.”

A portion of the bill would (in words from the Senate’s official summary) “ …prohibit a public body …from using public funds or resources for a communication by radio, television, mass mailing or prerecorded message if the communication refers to a local ballot question.” (Note, there is no mention of newspapers but we are nevertheless concerned over the larger ramifications.)

In other words, a municipality would be prohibited from using taxpayer dollars, or taxpayer supported resources to promote a ballot question or encourage a “nay” vote on some issue, for that matter.

That’s fine. We believe taxpayer dollars should be used wisely.

But the bill goes on to say the act “ … prohibits a public body or a person acting for a public body from using or authorizing the use of funds, personnel, office space … or other public resources to make a contribution or expenditure or provide volunteer services …”

Here we believe things get a little iffy.

How does the state define a “person acting for a public body?” And what does providing “ …volunteer services …” entail?

If a superintendent of schools or city manager is asked to address the Rotary or Lions Club — on their private time — to explain the need for a proposed millage, are they “acting for the public body” because of who they are and is their discussion with the club providing “volunteer services?”

If a teacher out shopping is asked a millage question, are they, because they are salaried and paid with taxpayer dollars, in violation of the law if they answer whether in support of the ballot issue or not?

The governor and GOP supporters of the bill suggest this is simply nitpicking. But is it?

None of this is clear.

While SB 571 may not be an actual gag order, the incredible ambiguity and lack of clarity rife throughout the bill create a situation in which a “gag” may well be placed and used — even if unwillingly.

With a potential $20,000 fine attached to violations of SB 571, many officials will simply opt out of answering any questions whatsoever, even if they may be allowed to respond to concerned queries.

Better to err on the side of caution than be tagged with a $20,000 fine.

Officials will shut up because the lack of clarity in this bill is simply frightening and threatening.

As such, either meaning to or not, SB 571 becomes a stumbling block to the clear dissemination of important information necessary to any voter in making an educated decision on whether to vote one way or the other.

And huge chunks of SB 571 are simply unnecessary. There are already laws in place controlling the use of taxpayer monies for specific purposes, and as noted by Steve Currie, deputy director of the Michigan Association of Counties, “The feedback from county leaders is consistent and clear – the existing laws were working fine.”

In passing a law just in order to pass a law, legislators and the governor need to be sure there is both clarity of language and clarity of purpose.

We believe SB 571 has neither.

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