Legislature needs to act quickly to protect integrity of elections
Though introduced late in the session, Senate Bill 203, proposed by Sen. Morgan Carroll to mitigate some of the worst effects of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC, should be moved through the Legislature as quickly as possible. With the 2010 elections approaching, expediency is essential if any restrictions against unlimited independent expenditures by corporations and unions are to be in place in November.
The controversial Citizens United ruling granted “personhood” to corporations and unions, and gave them the right to spend unlimited campaign money through independent expenditures not coordinated with the candidate.
Colorado voters made clear in 1996 with Amendment 15, and again in 2002 with constitutional Amendment 27, that they do not want corporate and union money spent directly on elections. Both amendments prohibiting direct campaign expenditures by corporations and unions passed with majorities of 66 percent.
SB 203 cannot restore the protections of Amendment 27, but it does require any corporation or union spending $1,000 or more on a political campaign to register as an “independent expenditure committee” with the secretary of state.
These committees would be required to disclose the amounts they spend, what the money is being spent for and the source of the funds to a searchable database in the secretary of state’s office.
It is very important for the Legislature to address this issue before the November election cycle begins in earnest. Without transparency, the voice of the people can be drowned out by the noise of nameless, faceless money.
Carroll described the problem to The Denver Daily News: “The dangers of having millions, even potentially billions of dollars of untraced, undisclosed cash in Colorado elections are deeply problematic,” she said. “The public should have a right to know” where the money is coming from.
Colorado Ethics Watch has endorsed the bill. “The worst of all possible worlds is one where corporations can spend unlimited money on campaigns and then don’t have to tell you who is spending it,” they said.
Though the impact of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC might not be as great in federal elections as some have feared, its impact on state and local races could be far more important for Colorado.
Many large national corporations with brand names and public images to protect may be reluctant to engage directly in political campaigns for fear of exposure. Since they have the option of dispersing money through PACs and other intermediary organizations, they can effectively keep their political expenditures below the radar by avoiding direct independent expenditures on candidates or issues.
At the state, county and city levels, on the other hand, corporations and companies are far less reluctant to support county commissioners, city councils and state representatives who will represent their interests, as anyone living in the oil patch knows.
Passing SB 203 will help keep voters from being hoodwinked by special-interest money secretly poured into state and local politics, but it is only a first step toward comprehensive campaign finance reform. Carroll is said to have rejected more extensive legislation because it might make it impossible to pass the bill in the time remaining to the Legislature.
If legislators are listening to the people of Colorado, they will not only support SB 203, they will strengthen it to include full disclosure of all political expenditures. This would include multi-purpose organizations and PACs that are currently exempt from disclosure rules. The spotlight Carroll hopes to shine on the cash flowing through independent expenditures should also reveal the sources of money funneled through multi-purpose organizations.
Rules to hold corporations and unions responsible to their shareholders and members should also be on the table. It is not unreasonable to require corporate managers to explain to shareholders how political expenditures serve their best interests.
Some states may even require a vote of shareholders before corporations can disperse political contributions or independent expenditures.
In the aftermath of Citizens United, Carroll warns of a “surreal world where artificial ‘persons’ have more rights (and certainly more money) than ‘natural’ persons.” Bold legislative action is our best protection against that nightmare scenario.