Supreme Court decision ripples through Northeast Minnesota

Jon Collins
Legislative Correspondent
Mesabi Daily News

ST. PAUL — The recent Supreme Court decision that corporations can spend unrestricted amounts to support political candidates will reverse longstanding campaign finance laws as Minnesota gears up for the 2010 elections.

Business groups see the decision as a long overdue victory and predict the Legislature will revise the laws without the legal challenges that are currently filed in other states like Wisconsin.

Opponents warn the decision has dire implications for the political process, which they say is already skewed in favor of moneyed interests that employ lobbyists. They’re scrambling to tighten up oversight laws before the 2010 governor’s race.

What is it?
Even with some restrictions, corporations already spend money on elections.

Until now, nationally, corporations typically relied on voluntary donations by employees or Political Action Committees, which were restricted in donation amounts and how they could spend money.

The court’s decision allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts to advocate for candidates or issues that represent their interests. Corporations still won’t be able to donate directly to candidates, but will be able to set up groups that make independent expenditures.

The Supreme Court split 5-4 in the decision, with a strongly worded dissent by the liberal minority.

The decision roused people on both the left and right, with conservatives celebrating the move as broadening free speech and liberals lamenting corporate influence on the political process.

Even the president got in on the action by scolding some members of the Supreme Court at his State of the Union address this week.

“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities, Obama said during the address. “They should be decided by the American people.”

The same debate is going on in Minnesota.

Mike Franklin, elections policy director for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the decision was long overdue and merely balanced the scales for business interests.

“If you look at campaign spending in Minnesota, businesses are hardly a factor,” Franklin said. “In the last election we were outspent [by labor unions] something like eight-to-one, that’s because of our overboard and unconstitutional ban.”

Because the court ruled that these restrictions on corporate spending are unconstitutional, the Minnesota laws that restricted business spending in the past will no longer be in play.

But Gary Hubbard, spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America, said labor unions nationally only spent about 10 percent of what business interests do. He warned that this decision would only worsen the situation.

“The nation’s four largest banks would have to only allocate a mere one-tenth of one percent of their assets to counter a campaign in which the whole of the U.S. labor movement spent all of its assets on an election,” Hubbard said.

In the last national election cycle, Political Action Committees that represented business interests donated $323 million and labor unions spent about $73 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Although unions would also be freed from spending restrictions in some states, Hubbard said the court’s decision would breed cynicism in the electoral process.

“If people believe the voice of money speaks louder than their vote, they won’t participate in elections,” Hubbard said. “The vote of the iron ore miners, the teacher or the librarian should matter as much as the banker.”

Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said the concern is that the decision could “open up the floodgates” of corporate money in national, state and local races.

“A lot of people are extremely concerned about what this could mean for the future of democracy,” he said. “Some people are concerned that we’re moving towards a corporate democracy, where corporations can totally control the outcome of our elections and have significant sway over them because of the money.”

Franklin said some characterizations by the media that the decision would mean a free-for-all were overblown.

“It’s all of our right and responsibility to discuss leaders in our elections,” Franklin said. “If you consider independent commentary on what’s best for Minnesota to be a ‘wild west scenario,’ I guess you can come to that conclusion.”

At the Capitol
Minnesota’s campaign finance restrictions are still in place. It will take either new legislation or a lawsuit to overturn them. Dean said a lawsuit could potentially overturn some of the state’s restrictions on spending within a month of being filed.

Franklin of the Chamber of Commerce said there probably won’t be any need for a lawsuit.

“I think the Legislature will try to pass an election bill this year to affect the 2010 elections,” Franklin said. “And it will have to be in line with what the court told us is constitutional.”

The business group will work with legislators to craft a bill that reforms the election law when the session starts, Franklin said.

But opponents of the decision will be working on bills on both the federal and state level, Dean of Common Cause said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota is among the senators drafting legislation that is hoped to minimize the impact of the court’s decision.

On the state level, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, announced that he will sponsor legislation that will increase the level of disclosure required from corporations and candidates, increase the contribution limit for individuals and reinstate a program that refunds Minnesotans for their political contributions.

“What we’re trying to do is pass through legislation that requires full disclosure so that when these ads are run, the citizens know who’s paying for them so they can judge the accuracy accordingly,” Dean said. “Right now, they’re going to be pretty much able to operate in complete secrecy.”

Northeast Minnesota
In a northeast Minnesota economy that relies heavily on very few industries, the new law could be disastrous to the public debate, Dean said.

In the case of legislation that required certain standards from a mining company for instance, the company would be able to create an independent expenditure group.

“They’ll start running negative ads against any candidates that [supports the legislation],” Dean said. “If it’s like any of the other mining companies, they have substantial profits and they would see it as in their best business interests to invest in these races to make sure this legislation does not pass.”

Dean said reforms need to tighten oversight and increase transparency before the election season starts.

“Minnesota really needs to act and would need to act quickly specifically so we don’t have such a negative impact on the governor’s election in 2010,” Dean said.