Public GAG Order – Do We Benefit from this Legislation

One of the last minute, rushed pieces of legislation in 2015, by the republican controlled legislature, is now Act 269 of 2015. This law amended previous campaign finance law to allow more money in support of a political campaign. The majority of changes from this law compliment the ongoing republican philosophy of allowing uninhibited private donations to fund elections. Yet the legislation, Senate Bill 571 received no criticism except for the one small paragraph that has become to be known as the gag order. This criticism was only present after the bill was passed by both chambers of the legislature.

Originally only republicans liked this bill and the democrats, not having any votes to block legislation, didn’t even try to criticize the bill before it was sent to the governor. Many republicans who voted for the bill claim they did not read the bill before they voted. It appears that democrats also did not bother to read the bill prior to it being submitted for a vote in both the senate and the house of representatives. The gag order however has received bipartisan support in the criticism of what the law does and the long term effects that it would have on how local government operates in the state of Michigan.

The language from the law (PA 269 of 2015), now known as the Gag Order;

Section 57.(3) Except for an election official in the performance of his or her duties under the Michigan election law, 1954 PA 116, MCL 168.1 to 168.992, a public body, or a person acting for a public body, shall not, during the period 60 days before an election in which a local ballot question appears on a ballot, use public funds or resources for a communication by means of radio, television, mass mailing, or prerecorded telephone message if that communication references a local ballot question and is targeted to the relevant electorate where the local ballot question appears on the ballot.

Those in government who now advocate for repeal of this language, but not of the entire bill that was signed into law, and their counterparts in the media suggest that this one paragraph will have a serious impact on local municipalities. These advocates are not saying that they believe it will be harder to raise local taxes based on this law. It’s clear that the intent of the republicans who inserted this language into the legislation wanted to make it more difficult for local municipalities to raise taxes.

A great example of this argument is the city of Detroit. Over the past twenty years, Detroit voters approved a few billion dollars in bonds for various projects, most of it was supposed to be used to repair and rebuild the Detroit Public School buildings. Despite these billions, the city was forced into bankruptcy and the school system is insolvent. With these two major factors, the local municipal power structure will ask voters in Detroit for new taxes in 2016. The city council will vote to place a ballot proposal in front of the voters in Detroit as ask them for more money to run a new addition to the government, a regional transportation authority. Part of these taxes is to pay for the new M1 Rail that is currently under construction along Woodward Avenue. Additionally, the suburban bus system, SMART, is losing money and will need either a new tax or at minimum a renewal of the existing taxes currently collected. Voters are not in support of new taxes or taxes for the above projects, it will take the power of government to convince voters to approve these taxes.

Those in government are now realizing that their desire to extract more money from those in Detroit and adjacent communities are worried that their plans may be doomed. The M1 Rail cannot survive without public funding. SMART cannot afford to pay for itself. The governing entities have twice diverted money from DDOT to SMART to help it from going bankrupt. Local governments have always used the power of their office and the attached reputation that elections bring to those in office to convince voters to approve or reject items on the ballot. This legislation is a benefit to the grass roots. This removes the government, to a point, from becoming part of the elections process. But this is not a gag order.

City Council President, Brenda Jones, published a memo that states that this law does not affect what she does in office, nor does it prevent her from communicating her thoughts to the voters of Detroit. (see the document; <click here>) A member of Brenda Jones staff attended the Hood Research meeting in January.  The city council staff analysts were the basis for the statement from Jones. The statement clearly shows that Jones is not worried about the effects of this law as to how she relates to the voters.

This portion of the law is a change, a shift, and now government must adjust. Those in government, either elected or appointed, are not used to operating with constraints or in playing by the same rules as does the grass roots. This law gives the grass roots a more even playing field when the desires of government are not complimentary to the needs of the people.

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