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PA 269: A Wall of Silence

When it’s time to vote, when are you most confident of the decisions you make?

Is it A: When you’re well informed and can easily explain how your vote will affect you and your family?

Or is it B: When you have little information, are somewhat confused by the ballot language and uncomfortable with the decision you’ve been asked to make?

Obviously, the answer is A. Here’s a followup: When faced with a ballot question asking you to pay more in taxes for a government service, when are you most likely to vote no? Is it A? Or B?

Again, I think the answer is clear. It’s B. When we don’t know much about something, and we’re trying to make a pocketbook decision based on confusing legal language that fails to explain “what’s in it for me,” most of us make the default decision to vote no.

At the very last moment of the last day of the legislative session last year, certain special interest groups successfully influenced legislators to prohibit governmental bodies from providing print, telephone or mass media communications to constituents for 60 days prior to an election.

So the real question is this: Why would anyone want to erect a wall of silence between constituents and their governments on issues of importance to both?

The answer, of course, goes back to a concept you learned in that long-forgotten psychology class in high school or college: primacy and recency.

Primacy and recency research finds people typically recall the first and last thing they learn about a topic. The things in between are fuzzy. Take a look at this short video on Study.Com.

Turns out, the special interests who sought to silence governmental units 60 days before an election are students of psychology. They’ve got a pretty good handle on how elections are run, and how people vote.

You’re probably aware that your schools have a fairly complicated financial structure. Even though the state sets a per-pupil funding amount for each school,each district levies an 18-mill non homestead tax that represents a large portion of its operating revenue. The 18-mill non homestead levy must be renewed periodically and is confusing to many. It covers only business, commercial and vacation properties, but voters always need to be reminded that it is not a tax on a family’s primary residence, and that it’s not a tax increase.

Districts must go to voters for bond issues to finance facility needs, and some also have “sinking funds” that allow them to levy a small property tax used annually for routine repairs, and building and grounds maintenance.

Since most people believe schools are funded by the state, they get confused when districts ask for tax renewals or new revenue for maintenance or construction. Voters need, and schools provide, detailed information on how new money will be spent and how it will affect homeowners’ property tax bills. It is not at all unusual for citizen groups to question, criticize and even provide misinformation surrounding tax proposals, which makes the need for objective information even greater.

Larger districts with a big community, like a Grand Rapids, will do a full-blown citizens campaign. They raise significant amounts of money and blanket potential voters with “vote yes” messaging. In most campaigns of this sort, there will be an opposition group doing the same.

Smaller districts usually don’t have a “vote yes” campaign. These districts involve their community in the planning, and provide solid information by mail, backpack and telephone (usually to remind people to vote). They don’t raise much money to pay for “yes” mailings and voting reminders.

Under PA269, signed in early January by Gov. Snyder, school districts would be prohibited from sending informational mailings and voting reminders. Some attorneys have gone so far as to suggest there could be no communication whatsoever from the district within 60 days of an election.

Snyder says school districts should be limited to communicating the ballot language and the date of the election. If you think that is sufficient voter information, go to the elections section of the Kent County website and read the ballot language for three proposals on the March 8 ballot for the East Grand Rapids Public Schools. I think you’ll have questions about their proposals, which are routine renewals of existing levies.

The special interests are counting on schools struggling to raise money to independently finance voter information, like mailings and get-out-the-vote telephone communication campaigns. They’re also counting on people forgetting to vote, or forgetting why the district needs the money in the first place (primacy and recency, remember?).

Legislators have been asked to pass language clarifying PA269, and to remove the prohibition on the information you need to make an informed decision on ballot questions.

If you believe more voter information is better, and you’d prefer to have information regarding ballot questions sent to you instead of having to attend a meeting to get it, please let your legislators know. Tell them to take down the wall of silence they erected in the dark of night. You can access an alert to send to your lawmakers here.

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education.


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