Free Speech and Campaign Dollars!

January 26, 2010

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

OPEN SEASON IN LOUISIANA FOR

 OUT-OF-STATE CAMPAIGN MONEY?

Last week’s Supreme Court decision declaring that corporations and unions can spend money on political advertising has unleashed a storm of controversy on both sides of the political spectrum.  And some press reports predict that Louisiana will become “the wild, wild west” for political fundraising with candidates no longer in control of their own campaigns.  Louisiana corporate boardrooms will become political cockpits for plotting the success or demise of those on the ballot.  So the question is-are Louisiana politicians now subject to be for sale to the highest bidder?

It’s no secret that, in the majority of elections, there are two key elements in getting elected to a major political office in Louisiana.  The first is money.  I’ve forgotten what the second element is.  In highly contested statewide races, Louisiana often is the most expensive state, per capita, in the nation.  And right now in state races, contrary to the laws governing the three federal races (President, US Senator and Congressman), corporations are legally allowed to make campaign contributions in Louisiana.   Such businesses are subject to the same limitations as individuals which is five thousand dollars for a statewide office.  The court decision does not give carte blanche for companies to give more than the present legal limit.

Corporate campaign money has been bountiful in recent Louisiana campaigns. The Governor’s present war chest is filled with corporate checks, both from in and out of the state.  Members of the Public Service Commission are actively supported by the corporations they then regulate.  LLCs formed by law firms are big players in Louisiana judicial elections.  And the Louisiana Insurance Commissioner has actively solicited major out of state companies the department regulates for major campaign funding.

So will there be a surge in new corporate dollars flooding Louisiana campaign coffers?  Probably not.  It’s been here for years already.  Many corporations operating in the state has a number of subsidiaries, all which can contribute to the same candidate. Just recently, a Florida lawyer named Scott Rothstein gave $30,000 to both Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Florida Governor Charlie Crist.    Rothstein contributed both personally and through various corporations that he had formed.  So to say there are limits on corporate giving in Louisiana is a sham.

Jindal and Crist were both technically following a loophole in the law. But this example vividly points out that, for all practical purposes, there are no limits on corporate giving in Louisiana.  Rothstein, by the way, has plead guilty to confecting a Ponzi scheme that cheated thousands of investors out of $1.2 billion. Once the charges became public, Crist retuned his contributions and Jindal donated his $30 thousand to a local food bank.

The court decision itself raises some puzzling question about judicial activism.  For years, conservatives have argued that judicial restraint requires deferring to the choices of the elected branches of government. Statutes have been on the books since 1906 limiting corporate spending in federal election campaigns. But the five most conservative judges on the Supreme Court had no hesitancy about overturning previous conflicting decisions.  This same conservative court has for years limited free speech of government employees, students, and maintained a willingness to muzzle defendants through gag orders in criminal cases, but felt compelled to look out for corporate free speech.  The message seems clear that conservative justices are happy to be activists when it serves their ideological agenda.

And have these conservative judges opened up the door for foreign nationals to flood campaign dollars in to federal elections?  In his dissent, Justice Paul Stevens said this decision “would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans.”  

 Remember Cities Services Company?  The old American oil company was purchased in 1990 by the Venezuelan government-owned Petroleos de Venezuela. So now we can envision Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez spending government funds in U.S. elections by having CITGO buy TV ads attacking his political target.  The Saudi government owns Houston’s Saudi refining Company, an American corporation.  Singapore’s APKL Limited, an American company, operates a number of U.S. port operations.  And Lenovo, which bought IBM’s PC assets in 2004, is owned by a Chinese company. Is this who conservatives are referring to when they say the first amendment won?

Here’s the real problem in Louisiana.  And it’s not corporate contributions.  It’s the flooding of out of state money into Louisiana campaigns.  Hundreds of millions of dollars pour into Louisiana political war chests very election cycle.  Hardly a week goes by when press reports follow Governor Jindal’s travels throughout the country seeking campaign funds.  Since 2004, Lafayette Congressman Charles Boustany has raised more than $1.3 million from the health and insurance industries, most of which comes from out of state.  In her last re election campaign, US Senator Mary Landrieu raised 53 per cent of her contributions from groups across the country, some $5 million.  Senator David Vitter is on the same fund raising track for his reelection this fall.

How do Louisiana citizens benefit when large amounts of campaign cash flood into the state to influence Louisiana elections?  Isn’t there a built in conflict of interest as to where an official’s loyalties lie when large out of state donations are accepted?  There is a simple and constitutional way to keep Louisiana elected officials focused on Louisiana issues.

A candidate for public office should only raise campaign funds in the district from where he or she is running.  If you are running statewide, raise all your financial resources within the state.  If you are running parish wide, your limits are within your home parish.  Legislators would be limited to raising campaign dollars from within their respective districts.  Simple.  Keep fund raising local.  Make the candidates focus and be responsive solely to the voters in the districts that put them in office.

Oh there would be loud protests from lobbyists who hand out the campaign dollars to gain their “special access.”  And incumbents, who can work the system from day one in office, would object at having to forgo all the many out of district fund raising opportunities.  The voters would be the beneficiaries.  But don’t count on any groundswell of change.  The recent Supreme Court decision was touted as a catalyst for major campaign changes.  But as long as out of state money floods the state, it’s going to be the same old, same old in both Baton Rouge and Washington.

                                                                                            *****

People used to complain that selling a campaign was like selling a bar of soap. But when you buy soap, at least you get the soap. In this campaign, you just get two guys telling you they really value cleanliness.”David Brooks

Peace and Justice 

im Brown

Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south.  To read past columns going back to 2002, go to www.jimbrownla.com.  


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