HELENA — A coalition of groups and individuals launched a proposed ballot measure Tuesday declaring that Montana's policy is that corporations are not people with constitutional rights and that corporate spending can be banned in campaigns.
The initiative by Common Cause Montana and others wouldn't be binding on anyone if it passes. Instead, it would amount to a policy statement, but one that the measure's backers are confident Montana politicians would heed. Missoula voters approved a similar ballot measure last fall.
"It's really clear to us that our elections are under assault," said C.B. Pearson of Common Cause Montana. "The powerful interests are really trying to make sure that our campaigns are run for their benefit, and not for the citizenry."
Joining Common Cause in the effort is the American Independent Business Alliance of Bozeman; Jon Motl, a Helena attorney who's written many Montana ballot initiatives; and Verner Bertelsen, a former Montana secretary of state and legislator.
Bertelsen said copper barons dominated Montana politics and controlled many newspapers early in the last century, leading Montanans to pass the Corrupt Practices Act in 1912 to ban independent corporate spending in campaigns.
Yet James Brown, a Helena lawyer for American Tradition Partnership — which has challenged several of Montana's campaign regulations and laws — said Tuesday that the state cannot exempt itself from U.S. constitutional protections for political speech and association.
"The people are free to express their opinions through the initiative process, and that's healthy, but this initiative is impractical in application and cannot be enforced in function," he said.
It's the latest move in the national and state battle over independent spending by corporations in political campaigns. The battle was triggered when the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2010 Citizens United decision, removed a federal prohibition on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.
American Tradition Partnership and others then challenged Montana's 1912 law, and a state District Court judge struck down the Montana law as unconstitutional, noting the U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
The Montana Supreme Court overturned that ruling and reinstated the 1912 law, but 10 days ago the U.S. Supreme Court blocked enforcement of the Montana Supreme Court decision.
American Tradition Partnership will be attempting to appeal the Montana ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The proposed ballot measure would set a state policy requiring any elected or appointed officeholders to prohibit "whenever they can and by all means possible" corporations from making contributions or expenditures in campaigns for political office or ballot issues.
It calls on Montana's congressional delegation to work to pass a constitutional amendment to nullify the Citizens United decision. Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester have backed bills to do that, while Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg has opposed the idea.
Backers need to obtain the signatures of 24,337 registered voters to qualify the initiative for the November ballot, as well as the signatures of 5 percent of the voters in at least 34 of the 100 state House districts.
Pearson estimated it would take at least $300,000 to qualify the measure for the 2012 ballot and to run a campaign for it.