This week we’ve been looking at the ballot measures up for voter approval this November. We now move to Initiative 166, a law establishing a statewide policy saying corporations are not people. The initiative attempts to respond to a string of court decisions gutting Montana’s campaign spending laws.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reinstated a campaign contribution law struck down by District Judge Charles Lovell last week. The court granted the emergency stay requested by the state Attorney General’s office, saying Judge Lovell did not provide enough information to justify throwing out state donation limits. Lovell has responded with a 38-page document supporting his originally terse decision. The 9th circuit has yet to answer that.
Earlier this year, Lovell struck laws requiring attack ads to disclose voting records as well as a ban on knowingly false statements in those ads. A federal appeals court overturned the state’s ban on partisan endorsements of judicial candidates. And this summer the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Montana’s century old Corrupt Practices act, which banned corporate spending in elections.
The catalyst behind all these decisions has been the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, one of the court’s most controversial of the last decade. That ruling allows corporations or unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on advertisements directly in favor of or against political candidates. Before the ruling, individuals within that corporation would have to spend their own money—and the amount was limited.
“We’ve had a fair system of elections. We’ve benefited from that. Now the Supreme Court is saying ‘no, you have to have corruption,” said CB Pearson, the campaign treasurer for the committee supporting I-166, Stand With Montanans.
Here’s how the ballot starts:
“Initiative 166 establishes a state policy that corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights because they are not human beings, and charges Montana elected and appointed officials, state and federal, to implement that policy.”
At first, it sounds pretty broad, the full ballot language focuses more directly on corporate campaign contributions.
Basically, it’s calling on state leaders to do whatever they can to reverse or work around Citizens United.
Pearson says large multi-national businesses should not be able to spend at will from their corporate treasuries to influence elections.
“That means just as they buy cars or nails…they just want to buy politics for an end result and that end result is profit and it may not have the people of Montana’s best interests at heart,” Pearson said.
However, the decision has no legally binding way to prevent corporate political spending, because of Citizens United. It would more or less be a statement from the people. Proponents still think it’s an important statement to make, like 94 year old former Republican Secretary of State, Verner Bertelsen.
“This becomes a tremendously big national issue not only in Montana but all the states of the union,” Bertelsen said.
Bertelsen thinks a movement to reverse Citizens United could start in a rural state, spreading across the country—eventually to the halls of congress.
“The end point is a constitutional amendment,” he said.
Republican State Senator Dave Lewis opposes the Initiative.
“If the people of Montana vote for this, nothing is going to happen,” he said, because to pass a constitutional amendment, “it takes two thirds of the members of congress and three quarters of the states to approve it and I do not see that as even possible…It seems like such a waste of time and effort to put it on the ballot and ask people to vote for it.”
And then there are those who oppose I-166 because they want Citizens United in place, like Montana Shooting sports association president Gary Marbut. His association is a nonprofit corporation that pursues and promotes pro-gun policies. And Marbut says Citizens United gives his organization the opportunity to be a political player in a way it never has been.
“We’re not Exxon, we’re not Citibank, we’re a nonprofit corporation of like-minded individuals joined together in a common purpose,” Marbut said.
He says his nonprofit should be able to spend money to try to affect policy. He says that’s why it exists, why the members pay dues.
The conservative group American Tradition Partnership has been behind several of the lawsuits against Montana’s campaign laws. The group has been arguing spending money on ads, even false ones, falls under freedom of speech guaranteed in the first amendment. Meanwhile, the State Attorney General’s office is seeking sanctions against American tradition, calling it a shadowy front group illegally trying to conceal its political spending.
District Judge Charles Lovell says much has been made of whether striking Montana’s contribution limit is good policy and good for Montana. But he says the case is not about good policy, he says it’s about following the law set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United.
With I-166, Montana voters will say whether or not they feel the nation’s highest court was wise in setting that law.
This story uses excerpts from my Montana PBS special on the ballot measures, “From the People: Montana’s 2012 Ballot Measures”
–The Associated Press contributed to this report.