HELENA — Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday backed an initiative that aims to undermine a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision granting constitutional political speech protections to corporations.
Schweitzer signed onto the initiative that could appear on the November ballot if backers gather enough support, about 25,000 required signatures from Montana voters. Supporters said they had already gathered about 5,000 signatures in less than two weeks.
The proposed initiative would state that Montana policy is that “corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights because they are not human beings.”
Supporters said the initiative would send a message to the congressional delegation to back an amendment to the U.S. Constitution clarifying that corporations don’t get its protections.
“Does anyone here think that foreign nationals should decide elections in the United States?” said Schweitzer, pointing out Congress has previously banned that activity. “What do you do about a corporation that is owned by foreign nationals?”
Schweitzer said politics is dominated by a relatively small group of super wealthy corporations that can sway Congress. He says that dominance cannot be allowed to spread.
Schweitzer was joined by Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and former secretary of state Verner Bertelsen at a ceremony signing the initiative.
Opponents have called the proposed policy statement in the initiative “meaningless in substance, and unenforceable in application” in the face of recent court decisions.
The corporations have been led by a Virginia-based conservative group called American Tradition Partnership, which currently has several lawsuits seeking to gain more influence in Montana elections and fewer campaign finance reporting requirements.
Montana has been at the forefront of the issue.
The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year struck down the state’s ban on corporate third-party spending in elections, citing their high-profile Citizens United decision from 2010 granting political speech rights.
Montana Common Cause is playing a big role in the newly formed group advocating Initiative 166, known as Stand with Montanans. Spokesman C.B. Pearson said Montana is the first state to attempt such a ballot initiative.
It will take a change to the U.S. Constitution to ultimately be successful in undoing the Citizens United decision. The last such amendment was ratified in 1992, which prohibits any proposed congressional pay raise from taking effect until the start of the next congressional term.
Such an amendment first takes supermajority support in Congress, then ratification by a supermajority of states.
“It is going to be a struggle, no one denies that,” Pearson said. “The corporations own Congress right now.”
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