|10/23/2014 10:06:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta: Petition Drive Under Way on Two Citizen Initiatives to Curb Big Money in Politics
|Collect signatures at the HOPE festival in Orono for a referendum to call for a Constitutional Convention to repeal the law equating corporations with people and money with speech.|
by Andy OBrienHarvard legal scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig wrote in his 2011 book, "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress - and a Plan to Stop It," that practically every important issue in American politics today is tied to one issue: campaign finance reform. As a series of Supreme Court decisions has gradually enshrined money as speech and corporations as people, the raw power of the very few to manipulate mass media ensures that government will never act on anything, from climate change to income inequality, unless the moneyed elites permit it. Lessig says it's a trend that harkens back to the corrupt politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but far more subtle and therefore more difficult to fix.
"The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth," writes Lessig. "The great threat today is instead in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people."
As demonstrated in the nonstop barrage of negative mailers and wall-to-wall ads on TV, radio and the Internet, the Supreme Court's decisions have also turned on the cash spigot in local elections. According to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which tracks money in politics, as of September 16, the three gubernatorial candidates had raised more than four times more money from out-of-state donors than the top three gubernatorial candidates raised in the entire 2010 election. However, when it comes to the deluge of outrageously rancorous negative ads, chances are they come from a third-party political action committee (PAC). According to an analysis by the Bangor Daily News, by the end of September 2014, PACs had already raised over $12.2 million, compared to the $9 million raised in 2010.
Maine's Clean Elections Law Under Siege
At the same time, Maine's landmark Clean Elections Law, which aimed to curb the corrupting influence of money in politics, has been considerably weakened by the Supreme Court. Passed in 1996 by citizen initiative (with a vote of 320,755 to 250,185), the Maine Clean Election Act is a voluntary public financing program for candidates running for state representative, state senator and governor. In order to qualify for public financing, Clean Election candidates must collect a set number of small individual contributions from donors. In exchange for public funds, they are only allowed to take a very limited amount of private seed money. A 2011 Supreme Court decision struck down the matching-funds provision in Maine's Clean Election Act, which allowed Clean Election candidates in competitive races to receive additional public money to respond to negative campaigning from outside groups. Without the matching funds, Clean Election supporters say candidates are like sitting ducks to big out-of-state interests.
In 2008, approximately 80 percent of Maine's qualifying candidates used the Clean Elections system. However, this year only about half of legislative candidates are using the program, which is the lowest rate since Maine's Clean Election Act took effect in 2002. None of the three gubernatorial candidates are using public funds.
Meanwhile, in Congress, efforts to give states the power to regulate and cap the amount of spending on campaigns have been thwarted by Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins, who argue that money should be considered free speech. Maine is one of 15 states to pass a resolution calling on Congress to give states the right to regulate campaign spending.
The Maine Clean Elections Initiative
On November 4, local activists will be circulating two petitions: one to strengthen the state's Clean Election Act and the other to move toward a national Constitutional Amendment to curb the influence of money in politics. Both citizen petitions will need to receive at least about 60,000 valid signatures - 10 percent of the total votes cast at the last gubernatorial election, which was in 2010 - in order to get on the November 2015 ballot.
The Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE) petition includes a replacement for the matching-funds provision that would be compliant with the Court's ruling by simply allowing legislative candidates in competitive districts to collect more individual $5 contributions from registered voters, which would be matched with additional public funds. The initiative would also require outside groups spending money in elections to disclose their top three donors in political advertisements. Another provision would increase fines for individuals and groups that break campaign finance laws.
"Part of the reason we're focused on our ballot initiative is because we need an immediate fix for our laws here in Maine," said MCCE spokesman BJ McCollister. Noting the precipitous decline in Clean Election candidates, McCollister added, "If we have another election cycle where candidates are not going with the Clean Election Act, I think that you could see this program go away."
Finally, the MCCE initiative would require newly elected governors to disclose the names of donors who contribute money for the transition expenses of new governors, which is a process that Clean Elections supporters say is open to potential corruption. To pay for the whole package, which would cost about $6 million over two years, the proposed law would direct the Legislature to find the money by closing corporate tax loopholes identified by the non-partisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA).
Banning Corporate Personhood and Money as Speech
The second proposed referendum, drafted by local activists in the Midcoast Peace and Justice Group, attempts to tackle the root of the problem at the national level. The initiative would direct Maine to apply to the US Congress to call a Constitutional Convention dedicated solely to revoking corporate personhood and repealing the law equating money with speech. The initiative is part of a broader national movement called "Move to Amend," which needs two-thirds of the states to support the proposal in order to pass a Constitutional Amendment.
"Corporations are not people," reads the first part of the We the People initiative. "The rights of corporations and artificial entities are subordinate to the rights of natural persons. Corporations and artificial entities are the creation of government for the purpose of promoting the life, health, and general welfare of the public and may be regulated, modified or abolished by government to accomplish that purpose."
While MCCE has not officially endorsed or opposed the We the People initiative, McCollister as well as the ACLU have expressed concerns about the unintended consequences of laws banning corporate personhood. For instance, liberal opponents say such an amendment could take away the ability of nonprofit membership organizations and labor unions to be involved in political advocacy and might prevent them from keeping their membership lists private. Opponents are also concerned about the effect the law might have on government censorship of the press, which has been protected through a series of court decisions affirming the free-speech rights of incorporated media entities. Corporate personhood also allows corporations to be sued and facilitates the taxing and regulation of corporate entities.
However, proponents counter that the benefits of such an amendment outweigh the drawbacks as corporations have often used their legal Constitutional rights to put profits over the common good.
But in spite of his reservations, McCollister has called the We the People initiative "complimentary" to his group's petition and MCCE has also helped train petition gatherers working for WtP. Although not as well funded or organized as MCCE, WtP has helped organize community activists mostly in southern and coastal Maine.
"My feeling is that we're getting volunteers who are further out politically," said WtP organizer Beedy Parker of Camden. "[MCCE is] getting more established groups. We probably need ten times as many volunteers."
On Saturday, October 25, at 7 p.m. at the Rockport Opera House, We the People will be holding a benefit concert to raise money for its efforts featuring musicians Gordon Bok, Nick Apollonio, David Dodson, the Gawler Sisters and Dean Stevens.
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