Campaign finance watchdogs in Minnesota and across the nation are blasting a Supreme Court ruling Thursday that they claim will dramatically expand the influence of big business and labor unions on elections.
By a vote of 5 to 4, the court struck down a decades-old law that prohibited companies and unions from using money from their general treasuries to produce and run their own campaign ads. But others are praising the ruling as a victory for free speech.
Corporations and unions had been prohibited for decades from spending money directly from their general treasuries on advertising aimed at electing or defeating candidates. The end of that ban means big changes, and some are bracing for a dramatic increase in political spending.
Nick Nyhart, president of the Washington-based nonpartisan citizens group Public Campaign, said special interests already have too much influence in government. During a conference call with reporters, Nyhart said the court ruling makes a bad situation worse.
“The decision will force candidates for Congress to spend even more time dialing for dollars and attending gala fundraisers.”Nick Nyhart
"The decision will force candidates for Congress to spend even more time dialing for dollars and attending gala fundraisers, instead of focusing on the challenges facing our country," Nyhart said.
Nyhart said it will increase fear among members of Congress of political reprisal for votes cast or policy decisions made that might be in the best interest of their constituents, but are opposed by the deep pocket lobbyists.
There are similar concerns in Minnesota, where voters will elect a governor, eight members of congress and 201 legislators this year. Mike Dean of Common Cause Minnesota said the ruling will have a big impact on the election.
"We believe that you could just see a huge influx of corporate interests start putting money into the governor's race," Dean said. "Minnesota is facing critical decisions in the coming years with the massive budget deficit, and we can't have a governor that's controlled by special interest dollars."
Business groups are hailing the court ruling. Mike Franklin, director of elections policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the change helps level the playing field. Franklin said the numbers from previous elections show businesses were far outspent by other interest groups.
"If this decision allows some more corporate money to be used to communicate the message in the marketplace of ideas, it may get us closer to even, which I understand from some folks perspective may be a bad thing," Franklin said. "But from the perspective of a full discussion, we think it's a good thing."
Other political insiders are also pleased. Tony Sutton, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, calls the change a victory for free speech. But Sutton said it's too soon to know what impact the change will have on this year's election and he doesn't believe there will be a flood of negative campaign ads.
"I think what will happen frankly, our corporations will -- they don't want to have bad PR for running negative ads," Sutton said. "So I think what will probably happen is they'll run positive ads that espouse their positions on the issues of the day and those sorts of things to try to influence elections."
Minnesota's campaign finance law already requires timely disclosure of who's spending how much on elections. But the Supreme Court ruling quickly inspired one state legislator to try to shed even more sunlight on the process.
DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley said he's proposing tougher and more frequent reporting requirements for all political contributions. Winkler also wants to allow individuals to make bigger contributions to make sure corporations don't have unfair influence.
"Otherwise we're going to have a system where the vast majority of the campaign is going to be funded and done outside of the campaign, and done by private special interests," Winkler said. "Individual voters, and the candidate, which is where the conversation is supposed to be happening in the political process, will [not] really be at the center of it."
Winkler said he'll introduce campaign reform legislation shortly after the 2010 session begins on February 4.