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Montana initiative takes aim at corporate money

Matt Gouras

Backers of a new ballot initiative are wading into the ongoing battle over corporate money in politics with a request that Montana voters reject the notion that the business entities have constitutional rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently sided against the state's ban on corporate third-party spending in elections with an initial decision in an ongoing case before the high court. That follows a high-profile Supreme Court case from two years ago that extended constitutional freedom of speech rights to corporations.

Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock has made a big issue fighting corporate influence in elections that he said threatens the political system with corruption. He has promised to defend the state's century-old ban on certain types of corporate election spending in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Montana Common Cause entered the fray Tuesday by proposing a new ballot initiative that asks Montana voters to set a policy statement that corporations are not people with constitutional rights. It tells Montana policy leaders to oppose the high court's decision any way they can.

Opponents immediately called the policy statement in the initiative "meaningless in substance, and unenforceable in application" in the face of recent court decisions.

But Helena lawyer Jonathan Motl, who has successfully authored several past ballot initiatives, said the policy statement from voters will be a strong call for the state's congressional delegation to back a change to the U.S. Constitution that states corporations aren't protected by its individual rights.

Former Republican Secretary of State Verner Bertelsen, now 93, said he decided to step back into public life to endorse the initiative because he believes the state's campaign finance laws should be protected from the corporate influence.

Montana Common Cause said it expects to be able to raise enough money, about $300,000, to qualify the measure for the ballot with a signature-gathering effort and to mount a successful campaign.

In the meantime, backer of the initiative said it will send a strong message to the Montana Legislature and other state officeholders to restrict the influence of corporations in elections with changes in law allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat running for re-election, quickly endorsed the initiative effort.

"This gives Montanans another chance to send our values of transparency and accountability to Washington," Tester said. "It's a chance to remind all Americans that our elections _ like our government _ should be decided by people and their ideas, not corporations and their money."

The issue has played prominently in a trio of court cases led by a Virginia-based conservative group called American Tradition Partnership.

The group is leading the challenge to state's ban on some corporate spending at the U.S. Supreme Court. It also is leading a group that convinced a federal judge last week to clarify that corporations are indeed allowed to donate to some political action committees.

The organization has a third case in state court that fights Montana's ability to sanction it for failing to file campaign finance disclosure forms.

The Associated Press