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Mich. Politicians Contest Ballot Gag Order

DETROIT (CN) - A group of Michigan mayors and school superintendents filed suit Tuesday over a new state law that silences them about ballot issues during election time.

Signed into law on Jan. 6 after a speedy tour through the Legislature, Act 269 prohibits public officials from using public funds "for a communication ... if that communication references a local ballot question" 60 days prior to an election.

Roseville Mayor Robert Taylor and 17 others filed a federal complaint over the law today, calling the amendment to Section 57 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act "an unprecedented gag order on public bodies and public officials that prevents them from communicating with and informing their constituents about ballot questions in an objectively neutral way during the two months before an election."

The lawsuit says some counties have already instructed their employees to refrain from speaking about important ballot issues "out of fear of criminal prosecution."

Michigan and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson are the only defendants to the action.

Taylor says one ballot issue the law implicates for him is the renewal of a property tax meant to equip, man, operate and train personnel for Roseville's Advanced Life Support Emergency Medical Service System.

The city of Algonac meanwhile is deciding whether to enter into a 20-year lease with the U.S. Coast Guard "for 200 feet of Riverfront Park dockage in exchange for the Coast Guard repairing at its cost the seawall at that location," the complaint states.

Before it became law, Senate Bill 571 allegedly passed under dubious circumstances, with many voters unaware of the amendment's language.

Officials say Rep. Lisa Lyons introduced the amendment with a substitute bill in the House of Representatives last month on "the last day of the legislative session."

The bill "was so hastily adopted at the last minute that there was virtually no legislative debate," according to the complaint.

"And since then, numerous members of the House of Representatives and state Senate have stated publicly that they voted for SB 571 without knowing that" it included the new 57(3) subsection, the complaint states.

Sen. Michael Kowall, a Republican from White Lake who introduced the original bill, "told the [Detroit] Free Press that he was not fully aware of the last minute substitute when he voted for it," according to the complaint.

The 18 plaintiffs seek a judgment declaring the amendment unconstitutional, as well as an injunction preventing the state from enforcing it.

They are represented by Scott Eldridge of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, in Lansing.

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