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Mining influence in Montana

Regional View



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 the Supreme 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 world's wealthiest men. 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 U.S. senator. The state Legislature appointed senators in those days, so Clark simply gave each corruptible 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 returned to Montana.

Nevertheless, this type of corruption continued until 1912, when Montana voters approved a ballot initiative banning corporate money from campaigns (with limited exceptions). We later banned large individual donations, too. Montana candidates may not take more than a few hundred dollars from an individual donor per election; a state legislator can't take more than $160. 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: 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.

Since money can't 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 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 on the court's stay are already being felt. The ink wasn't even dry when front groups started funneling corporate cash into our legislative races. Many backers have remained anonymous because 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 more profit can be made and more citizens can be shortchanged.

I've started receiving bills on my desk ghostwritten by industries looking to weaken state laws, including gold-mining companies that want to overturn a state ban on using cyanide to mine gold, and developers wanting to build condos on the edge of our legendary trout streams.

In the absence of strict rules, these big players eventually will get what they seek. I vetoed these bills, but future governors might sign them if they're bribed by the money now corrupting our 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, if we don't win in court, I'm also supporting a constitutional amendment that enshrines a state's right to ban corporate money from campaigns. The petition will be presented to Montana 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 burns all the way to Washington. Meantime, we'll see whether the court decides to blow the stink of Washington into Montana, or whether we can preserve our fresh mountain air.

Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has been Montana's governor since 2005.

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