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Lawmakers look to tweak local government “gag order” law

A bill meant to clarify what civic and school officials can tell residents about local ballot measures is moving forward in the state House.

School districts and local governments have been bashing a new law that limits what they can say about local proposals 60 days ahead of an election. They’re calling it a “gag order.”

House Bill 5219 cleared a state House panel on Wednesday with new language meant to ease concerns from local leaders. It now says officials can give information – as long as it’s “factual and strictly neutral.”

“Those who want to comply with the letter and the spirit of the law – and not abuse taxpayer dollars – will be able to provide factual information to their residents,” said state Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto, the bill’s sponsor and chair of the House Elections Committee.

But critics say the language is still too vague.

“We need to give our local governments clear direction on what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. That’s the most important thing for the Legislature to get right in this bill, and it’s the biggest thing that we’re getting wrong,” said state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.

Local government groups that testified at Wednesday’s hearing agreed.

“With those ambiguous issues, we will end up having more legal challenges on that,” said Judy Allen with the Michigan Townships Association.

Meanwhile, a group of 17 local leaders are challenging the new law in federal court on constitutional grounds. They say it infringes on their rights to free speech and due process.

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