Local officials sue to block law prohibiting ballot info.

By David Eggert
Associated Press

LANSING (AP) - Local officials filed a lawsuit Tuesday against a new Michigan law they say unconstitutionally restricts their free-speech rights, urging a judge to immediately block it so they can distribute ballot measure information to voters ahead of the March elections.

The complaint, brought against the state by 17 school and local government officials and one private citizen, alleges that the "gag order" law violates the First and 14th Amendments by prohibiting the "free flow of objectively neutral, core political speech."

Gov. Rick Snyder signed the Republican-backed measure on Jan. 6, after it was quickly approved the final night of the 2015 legislative session with no substantive debate despite the addition of the divisive provision.

The law prohibits public money or resources from being used to disseminate factual information about local ballot measures through TV and radio ads, mass mailings or robocalls in the 60 days before an election. It already was illegal to use public funds or resources to advocate for or against ballot questions, with exceptions for officials with policymaking responsibilities.

Snyder asked lawmakers to quickly pass legislation clarifying that the expression of personal view by public officials is not affected by the new law, nor is the use of government facilities for debates or town halls on ballot issues.

But groups representing school districts, municipalities and other government entities said the "fix" pending in the House Elections Committee is inadequate and would only let them communicate the election date and a 100-word ballot summary of the proposal to voters.

Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly, president of the Michigan Municipal League, said the secretary of state found only five valid complaints in three years of a local entity improperly advocating for a ballot measure.

"There is no indication there was any great calamity to be solved" by this law, he said during a news conference in Lansing to announce the suit. "This was a political thing that never should have happened."

Conservative groups that support the law have said informational campaigns are biased, and it was needed because public officials had learned how to promote their entity's cause with "factual" information.

The case, which names Secretary of State Ruth Johnson as a defendant, was assigned to U.S. District Judge John Corbett O'Meara in Ann Arbor.

Also Tuesday, two new bills were introduced to amend the campaign-finance law. They would let a public body share detailed, factual information - including financial and tax info - on any measure up for a public vote and require any TV or radio ad, mass mailing or robocall sent within 30 days of an election to first be approved by the entity's governing body. The requirements would not apply to tax renewals.

"I voted for the original bill, and firmly believe that taxpayer dollars shouldn't be used for campaigning," said Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth. "But we went too far, and voters should be able to receive factual information on local ballot questions. ... I'm confident these bills strike a necessary balance between informing voters and protecting taxpayer dollars."

Published: Thu, Jan 28, 2016