Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 4:01 PM on Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Resolution targets Citizen United decision

Recent polls show most U.S. citizens oppose corporate personhood, says sponsor of legislation

BY Hal Spence
For the Homer News

Controversy surrounding the impact of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively giving corporations and unions rights of free speech comparable to those of human beings has led some state lawmakers to introduce a resolution urging Congress and President Barack Obama to seek a constitutional amendment reversing that decision.

Alaska House Joint Resolution 33 seeks a federal amendment prohibiting corporations, unions and other organizations from making unlimited independent expenditures supporting or opposing candidates for public office. The bill, introduced by prime sponsor Rep. Les Gara of Anchorage and seven other House Democrats, originally included "individuals" in the proposed prohibition, but that word was axed in the House State Affairs Committee last week before the committee passed the bill out to the House Judiciary Committee.

An equivalent measure, Senate Joint Resolution 13, currently is in the Senate Rules Committee, but as yet has had no hearings there. That resolution still includes "individuals" in its wording.

The narrow 5-4 High Court ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case effectively made "persons" of corporations and other organizations and equated their spending of unlimited money conveying political messages on television, radio and in print with the proverbial lonely voice shouting from a soapbox in the village square.

Gara called Citizen United "a radical decision" in which five "ideological Supreme Court justices said they think corporations should be able to donate as much as they want" to campaigns. Short of changing the makeup of the court, only a constitutional amendment will correct the judicial error, he said.

Citizen United opened the floodgates to a deluge of campaign money going to so-called super-PACs, which have inundated the airwaves with mostly negative advertising without having to disclose who their donors are or even on whose behalf the ads are run. As far as disclosure in Alaska is concerned, a state law adopted in 2010 after a contentious political fight, requires that the top three donors to a campaign must be publicly revealed in campaign ads and commercials. Gara and Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, were largely responsible for its passage.

While campaign spending by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals is rising rapidly, so is reaction from citizens across the country. Recent polls, Gara said, show a majority of U.S. citizens oppose corporate personhood and unlimited spending by anyone on campaigns. Several cities and state legislatures have already adopted resolutions similar to that proposed by Alaska House members, including such places as New York City, Los Angeles, Missoula, Mont., and Boulder, Colo., as well as the state of Montana to name a few. More are in the process.

Opponents of the High Court's decision argue the ruling gives wealthy entities, such as corporations and unions, as well as individuals, undue influence over elections because their expenditures of tens of millions of dollars can easily drown out the voices of those less well off.

Two examples: free of any restraints, Las Vegas casino maven Sheldon Adelson said last week he was considering giving $100 million to a super-Pac in support of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. Adelson reportedly has already donated in excess of $10 million to the Gingrich-supporting Winning Our Future super-Pac. Also last week, political comedian and TV host Bill Maher announced he would donate $1 million to a super-PAC supporting the reelection of the president.

House Joint Resolution 33 expresses the need for constitutional action to reverse the Citizen United decision and prohibit such unlimited, independent expenditures to campaigns.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said in an interview last week that he disagrees with the Citizen United decision, adding that corporations are not human beings, but rather entities created by government. A corporation's main goal, he said, is acquiring profit for its shareholders. Making political expenditures for or against candidates is directly tied to that goal. Now that the High Court has ruled, there is only one effective tool for repair.

"It takes a constitutional amendment to say corporations are not people for purposes of political speech," he said.

While supporting a ban on excessive campaign spending by corporate entities, Seaton draws a line at applying the same interdiction to real people. He said he has a problem with telling a wealthy person how much he or she can contribute to a campaign. He also said he doesn't know where the full Legislature may come down on the issue should HJR 33 come to a vote.

Gara said he would have preferred the word "individuals" remained in the bill, but acknowledged he lacked the necessary House State Affairs Committee votes.

The power of ideas should sell them, not corporate backing, Gara said. Unlimited spending by corporations, unions and super-wealthy individuals in campaigns Outside in states with larger congressional contingents easily could serve to muffle Alaska's voice in Congress, he added.

"It's completely absurd to give the richest people in the world the right to have more influence in elections than a whole state's worth of people," he said, adding that campaign spending by a few very wealthy people will outspend all of Alaska.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who represents Homer, said Monday he would withhold comment on the resolution until the Senate has seen it. He also declined comment on the wider subject of the effects of Citizens United for now.

Hal Spence is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.