By Chris Camire
July 6, 2012
BOSTON — Big business can still pour unlimited amounts of cash into selectmen, city council and state Legislature races after the Supreme Court struck down a Montana law limiting corporate spending in local elections last week.
Massachusetts was one of 22 states backing Montana in its fight to prevent the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision from being used to strike down state laws restricting corporate campaign spending.
The states were asking the high court to preserve Montana’s state-level regulations on corporate political expenditures.
The court reversed the Montana ruling, however, opening the door for corporations to spend millions of dollars to influence races on the local level.
State officials opposed to Citizens United warn the consequences of the court’s decisions could be dire for the Bay State.
“If you’re talking about a selectman or a city councilor who opposes a development in a neighborhood, someone could spend $30,000 to $40,000 to take out ads to defeat that person and get someone more sympathetic to the developer’s cause,” said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat.
Citizens United states that corporations have the same rights as individuals to make unlimited contributions to independent groups seeking to influence elections. The controversial 5-4 Supreme Court ruling has come under fire from those who say it has given corporations unlimited influence over elections.
Critics of Citizens United are working to overturn the decision.Eldridge and state Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord, recently proposed a nonbinding resolution by the Legislature calling for Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that overturns the court’s decision. The measure, which could come up for a vote in the Senate next week, has already passed in Rhode Island, Vermont, New Mexico and Hawaii.
Eldridge has also filed two bills he said will fight the public perception that campaign contributions taint the legislative process.
One bill would ban legislators from holding fundraisers during budget deliberations. Another would limit campaign contributions from those who do business with the state, a practice he said damages public confidence.
His proposal would also prevent lobbyists from soliciting campaign donations and ban contributions from business executives — and their immediate families — who have a state contract or are applying for one.
He has also filed legislation that would force corporations to disclose their political-campaign contributions. The bill would also limit campaign contributions per election, rather than per year. He said that would put challengers on a more level playing field.
Eldridge said the disclosure bill, if passed before the Legislature recesses on July 31, would have an impact on this year’s elections.
The debate over corporate spending in Massachusetts elections has played a high-profile role the U.S. Senate race. Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren have agreed to make hefty donations to charity if outside groups launch television ads in support of their campaigns.
State campaign-finance records show corporations have yet to pour significant dollars into local races, but Eldridge does not expect that to last.
“I do see it happening more frequently at the local level,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before a corporation feels its bottom line is being harmed.”