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Montana - big sky, clean politics

Posted: June 20, 2012 - 12:00am

It’s too bad American electoral races aren’t as transparent as NASCAR races. Tattooed across NASCAR drivers’ jumpsuits and over every square inch of their cars are the logos of the companies sponsoring the teams, underwriting the costs, paying their salaries. Everyone can see who the drivers represent and who is footing the bill.

But two years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, no one can identify the wizards behind the curtain pouring massive amounts of money into our state and federal campaigns.

Montana hasn’t gone along quietly.

A 1906 editorial in a Montana newspaper read, “The greatest living issue confronting us today is whether the corporations shall control the people or the people shall control the corporations.”

It was the era of the “copper kings,” who bribed state legislators and controlled state resources. In 1912, Montana voters passed a citizen initiative, the Corrupt Practices Act, that banned direct corporate expenditures in elections for state offices. Since then, Montana’s elections have been reasonable in cost and among the fairest in the country. We also have one of the highest rates of voter turnout.

Now Montana is fighting to keep control of its state elections. A Washington-based group, American Tradition Partnership, brandishing the Citizens United decision, challenged the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act in Montana courts and filed two other lawsuits challenging all of our core campaign finance and disclosure rules. It is seeking to systematically dismantle our campaign finance laws and turn back the clock to the days when corporate interests controlled our government and our courts.

The Montana Supreme Court, however, upheld the 1912 law. Now that decision is before the U.S. Supreme Court; it may summarily decide against the state Supreme Court, or it may agree to hold a hearing on the case, which could bring changes to the Citizens United decision.

I’m proud to lead Montana and 22 other states (some red, some blue) — and to be joined by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., — in the fight to defend Montana’s century-old corporate expenditure law before the U.S. Supreme Court. I believe states should have the right to be the masters of their own elections. The integrity of our system and the voices of Montanans, whatever their political views, are too important to be drowned out by modern-day copper kings.

In Montana, no one, including out-of-state corporate executives, has been excluded from spending money — or “speaking — in our elections. Any individual can contribute. All we require is that they use their own money, not corporate money that belongs to shareholders, and that they disclose who they are. And we limit every contribution — for most races the maximum works out to a few hundred dollars, and for the governor’s race, a little more than $1,000.

The American Tradition Partnership lawsuits, if successful, would make it possible for corporations and individuals in some cases to spend and contribute unlimited amounts, with no disclosure.

A winning state Senate race now costs a candidate an average of $17,000. It would be easy, and relatively inexpensive, for spending of the kind unleashed by Citizens United to make our political process unrecognizable.

For a century in Montana, winning an election for state office has meant going door to door and meeting face to face with everyday voters: democracy at its best.

Our legislators are true citizen-legislators; they aren’t amassing war chests, and they are accessible to all citizens, not just to moneyed interests.

I look forward to continuing to defend the way Montanans have chosen to elect our state public servants.

If the Supreme Court takes Montana’s case, I hope it will be the vehicle for the court to reconsider its Citizens United decision and return sanity — and transparency — to all elections in this country.

• Bullock is Montana’s attorney general.

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