Friday, May 18, 2012

Back to the Good Old Days - Not

Rural states like Montana are rarely at the forefront of public policy. There are exceptions of course. Our approach to the management of wolves is pragmatic and right-minded; our constitutional provision for a right to a clean and healthy environment is shared by only five other states (Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island). It is a not only an important citizen’s rights issue, it is good for the long run economy of the state. In one other area, Montana is at the cutting edge of policy that is good for its citizenry and the democratic process - campaign finance.

Montana voters adopted the Corrupt Practices Act at a time when national copper mining companies (notably the Anaconda Company) were running roughshod over the state government. “Bribery of public officials,” the Montana Supreme Court explained in its ruling, “and unlimited campaign spending by the mining interests were commonplace and well-known to the public.” As most know, the state was awash in political corruption and was held hostage by the Copper Kings. Sound familiar yet?

As most also know, in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling by striking down provisions of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as the McCain–Feingold Act) that prohibited corporations (including nonprofit corporations) and unions from spending on "electioneering communications". The floodgates of money for mostly negative campaigning were thrown open and now we have billionaires funding candidates from Newt Gingrich to Mitt Romney to Barack Obama with almost no disclosure and virtually no accountability – the so-called Super PACs. Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, which essentially bans corporate spending in elections, is diametrically opposed to the finding. Unlike the slight majority of the Court, Montana would hold that people are defined as biological entities and, as such, enjoy the rights of political speech. Corporations and unions are not and do not.

This year, the nonprofit American Tradition Partnership, is challenging the Montana law and recently won a motion by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell for summary judgment on several claims including the finding that the state could not prohibit corporate contributions to groups engaging in independent political speech. ATP is clear about its goals “to solicit and anonymously spend the funds of other corporations, individuals and entities to influence the outcome of Montana elections.” They argue that the Montana law is in conflict with Citizens United and so should be overturned. Students of Montana history recognize this as a bad rerun of the Copper King days.

Here is a simple idea. Rather than treat rural states as backwaters of ignorance and limited experience, let’s think about how findings like Citizens United will lead to the Butte, America of 1900. Montana has been there, done that. At one time, Montana government was up for sale to the highest bidder; today the American government resembles a giant IPO. ATP would like to return to the good old days and undermine our constitutional right to environmental protections and sovereignty over our politics. The court should take a lesson from the wild west and overturn Citizens United.

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