THE BUZZ 2: Quashing Corporate Coffers

By on May 17, 2017

Wyomingites join states in the battle to rid dark money from the political piggy bank.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A non-partisan group in Wyoming wants to purge dark money from politics and its ramping up efforts all over the state, including in Jackson Hole.

Wyoming Promise—whose supporters include former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, former Governor Dave Freudenthal and a couple hundred citizens—is leading an initiative to call for a 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution that would overturn Citizens United.

The fallout from the 2010 landmark Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commissions, is that there’s no limit to the amount of money corporations and unions can spend to support lawmakers.

In a letter to Wyoming citizens, Simpson wrote, “support a 28th Amendment to the Constitution so we can … secure human liberty and equal representation rather than turn our government over to a global corporate marketplace.”

Folks like Simpson, Freudenthal, and Wyoming Promise chairman Ken Chestek say the deluge of corporate money in politics is the single greatest threat to democracy. Politicians are no longer beholden to the people, but instead to those who bankroll them by the thousands and millions.

“Congress has lost its connection to voters,” said Chestek, who will speak at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse Thursday night.

“We see examples of this all the time,” he continued. “Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) voted against importing prescription drugs from Canada, which would have saved us all a lot of money, but several pharmaceutical companies in his district gave him money so he voted against it.”

Chestek, a University of Wyoming law professor, decided to pursue the initiative after an unsuccessful bid for the Wyoming House, where he had hoped to craft campaign finance reform legislation. He is working with National Promise, the grassroots organization leading the charge on campaign finance reform across the country. After Wyoming’s Secretary of State certifies the initiative this month, residents will have until February 12, 2018 to submit 38,818 signatures, sourced from at least 16 counties, for the initiative to appear on the November 2018 general election ballot.

Almost 40,000 signatures seem a lofty goal for a sparsely populated state like Wyoming. That number is dictated by state law—it represents the 15 percent of voters in the state who turned out for the 2016 presidential election.

But every week another display of Congress’ blatant disregard for constituents surfaces that makes this issue increasingly apparent to the public, Chestek said, and this campaign more relevant. He pointed to public uproar over the American Health Care Act (Trumpcare). “The AHCA will not help ordinary folks and you see the town halls with folks yelling at Congress, but [the House of Representatives] passed it because wealthy donors wanted it to be passed.”

Indeed, these wealthy donors are showering politicians with more and more cash than in recent years. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, this year the amount of money D.C. lobbyists spent on their political pals was the largest for a first quarter since 2012: $838.4 million.

While Wyoming is among the five states with citizen groups pushing for this measure, 18 states have already enacted measures calling on Congress to propose an amendment overturning Citizens United. Neighboring Montana and Colorado passed ballot measures in 2012 by a staggering 75 percent margin.

In Montana, C.B. Pearson led that effort through his group Stand with Montanans.

“Republicans and Democrats alike were involved … we were able to bring together a diverse group of people, even while the group American Traditional Partnership tried to have it removed from the ballot,” Pearson told PJH. “It’s really about pushing the campaign finance system so that people are represented by their representatives … everyone agrees we are losing our democratic system because of the role of wealth in elections and policymaking.”

That a “straight shooter” like Simpson, respected by liberals and conservatives alike, is advocating for the campaign gives Pearson hope for its success in Wyoming. “We are honored Al Simpson has made such a strong message on this … I have always admired him,” he said.

The Simpson factor aside, Chestek likes to note the measure has passed in every state where it has made it to the ballot. “This is a non-partisan issue,” he said. “It just passed in Washington and Wisconsin, even in Paul Ryan’s district … I feel very confident that if we can get it on the ballot, it will pass.”

To get it on the ballot, though, there’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of volunteers to knock on doors, a lot of tables at county fairs. “We are going to do everything you can think of,” Chestek said.

There’s also the elephant in the room—members of Congress, who are the primary beneficiaries of the current system of campaign finance, are highly unlikely to propose an amendment allowing the system to change, Chestek explained. But if a total of 34 states call for a limited convention of the states to propose such an amendment, then a proposed amendment would be adopted as soon as it was ratified by 38 states. State ratification, Chestek noted, is by either the legislature or a state convention, and Congress determines the ratification method, apparently regardless of whether Congress or a convention of states proposes the amendment.

Chestek acknowledges the path ahead is drawn-out and daunting. “And even once the amendment has been ratified, all it does is empower Congress and the state legislatures to enact meaningful campaign finance measures,” he said. “But that … doesn’t mean we should give up; nothing will ever change unless we start the process now.”

For states like Nevada, that have already started the process, its work may be paying off soon. Assembly Bill 45 may include an amendment that requires all candidates for public office to disclose the total amount in their campaign accounts at the end of the reporting period, reported the Las Vegas Review Journal in April.

Wyoming, too, had a chance at legislative action when Jackson Rep. Mike Gierau introduced House Joint Resolution 10, Free and Fair Elections, in January. The bill, co-sponsored by fellow Democrats local Rep. Andy Schwartz and Reps. Cathy Connolly and John Freeman, passed out of committee but died on the House floor. As the CEO of a multimillion dollar business, Gierau says the issue resonates with him, particularly when it comes to transparency.

“I do not believe I should have any more of a voice than anyone else and right now that’s not true,” he told PJH. “When I personally give money, I have to fill out a form and there is no mystery to it. You can type my name into google to see who I have contributed to, yet if my company donates a million dollars to a PAC (political action committee) it is nowhere to be found. That’s not right.” PJH

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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