Mining for Influence in Montana

This item originally appeared in: The New York Times

Author

Governor Brian Schweitzer

 IN Montana’s frontier days, we learned a hard lesson about money in politics, one that’s shaped our campaign-finance laws for a century and made our political system one of the country’s most transparent.

Those laws, and our political way of life, are now being threatened by theSupreme Court — which is why I recently signed a petition for a federal constitutional amendment to ban corporate money from all elections.

Montana’s approach to campaign law began when a miner named William A. Clark came upon a massive copper vein near Butte. It was the largest deposit on earth, and overnight he became one of the wealthiest men in the world. He bought up half the state of Montana, and if he needed favors from politicians, he bought those as well.

In 1899 he decided he wanted to become a United States senator. The State Legislature appointed United States senators in those days, so Clark simply gave each corruptible state legislator $10,000 in cash, the equivalent of $250,000 today.

Clark “won” the “election,” but when the Senate learned about the bribes, it kicked him out. “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale,” Clark complained as he headed back to Montana.

Nevertheless, this type of corruption continued until 1912, when the people of Montana approved a ballot initiative banning corporate money from campaigns (with limited exceptions). We later banned large individual donations, too. Candidates in Montana may not take more than a few hundred dollars from an individual donor per election; a state legislator can’t take more than $160. And everything must be disclosed.

These laws have nurtured a rare, pure form of democracy. There’s very little money in Montana politics. Legislators are basically volunteers: they are ranchers, teachers, carpenters and all else, who put their professions on hold to serve a 90-day session, every odd year, for $80 a day.

And since money can’t be used to gain access, public contact with politicians is expected and rarely denied. A person who wants to visit with a public official, even the governor, can pretty much just walk into the Capitol and say hello. All meetings with officials are open to the public. So are all documents — even my own handwritten notes and e-mails.

All this is in jeopardy, though, thanks to the Supreme Court and its infamous Citizens United ruling. In February the court notified the office of Montana’s commissioner of political practices, which oversees state campaigns, that until further notice, we may no longer enforce our anti-corruption statute, specifically our restriction on corporate money.

The court, which will make a formal ruling on the law soon, cited in the 2010 Citizens United case that corporations are people, too, and told us that our 110-year effort to prevent corruption in Montana had likely been unconstitutional. Who knew?

The effects of the court’s stay are already being felt here. The ink wasn’t even dry when corporate front groups started funneling lots of corporate cash into our legislative races. Many of the backers have remained anonymous by taking advantage of other loopholes in federal law.

But it’s easy to figure out who they are: every industry that wants to change the laws so that more profit can be made and more citizens can be shortchanged.

I know this because I’ve started receiving bills on my desk that have been ghostwritten by a host of industries looking to weaken state laws, including gold mining companies that want to overturn a state ban on the use of cyanide to mine gold, and developers who want to build condos right on the edge of our legendary trout streams.

In the absence of strict rules governing campaign money, these big players will eventually get what they seek. I vetoed these bills, but future governors might sign them if they have been bribed by the same type of money that is now corrupting our State Legislature.

This will mean, sadly, that the Washington model of corruption — where corporations legally bribe members of Congress by bankrolling their campaigns with so-called independent expenditures, and get whatever they need in return — will have infected Montana.

That’s why, in the event we don’t win in the court, I’m also supporting a federal constitutional amendment that would enshrine the right of a state to ban corporate money from political campaigns. I’m hoping the rest of Montana will join me — indeed, the petition will be presented to voters in November.

It’s not much, but it’s a start. If other states get into the act, maybe we can start a prairie fire that will burn all the way to Washington. In the meantime, we will see whether the court decides to blow the stink of Washington into Montana, or whether we can preserve our fresh mountain air.