Citizens United opponents push for corporate spending bill

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STATE HOUSE, APRIL 28, 2015….. Opponents of the Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance known as “Citizens United” asked lawmakers on Tuesday to declare through legislation that “corporations aren’t people.”

At a hearing of the Joint Committee on Elections Laws, citizens called for a legislative amendment to the state constitution that they said would stem the “corporate influence” in politics that was boosted by the high court’s ruling.

The five-year-old ruling allows for greater outside spending by corporate and union interests seeking to influence elections.

“This would send a message to the U.S. Congress and to the Supreme Court to say that Massachusetts is standing firm, that the excessive sums of money in electoral politics have totally skewed the representative government that we have,” said Gina Sonder, an Arlington resident, who was part of a contingent of citizens appearing before the committee.

“Corporations do not have the right to free speech,” added Sen. Ken Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat and Senate vice chair of the committee who sponsored the amendment.

Donnelly’s bill (S 53) proposes to amend the state constitution to state that corporations and money are not people, and therefore can be regulated.

Proponents of Citizens United call the ruling a win for free speech and say opponents are misguided.

Opponents, operating under the banner of “PassMass Amendment,” are still aiming to put a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot with language similar to the Donnelly legislation.

In September 2014, then-Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled that the group’s proposal did not meet the state legal standards for a ballot petition.

Soder, one of the group’s members, said they are rephrasing their petition and pressing ahead with the 2018 ballot effort. They hope to gather 70,000 signatures statewide by November.

If they gather enough signatures, the effort moves into the Legislature, and two consecutive Legislatures must pass constitutional amendments before they can appear on the ballot.

As for the bill heard on Tuesday, the Election Laws Committee faces a Wednesday deadline to act on proposed constitutional amendments. If the bills do not receive a committee report, they will automatically labeled as “ought not to pass,” though lawmakers can still put them on the constitutional convention calendar.

Earlier this month, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary heard testimony on a similar bill (H 933) filed by Rep. David Rogers, of Cambridge, that also seeks to change the constitution to give the Legislature the authority to regulate all fundraising and election spending.

The Election Laws committee also took testimony on other proposed constitutional amendments.

“All of them have great merit,” said Sen. Thomas Kennedy, a Brockton Democrat and co-chair of the committee, when asked about the bills.

The House Election Laws chair Rep. John Mahoney, a Worcester Democrat, said he and Kennedy plan to discuss the next steps for the bills.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, testified on legislation dealing with absentee ballots and the line of succession when a governor leaves office.

Wilmot asked the committee to approve a bill (S 52) that would lift restrictions on absentee voting. That type of voting is currently restricted to voters who are absent from their city or town on Election Day, or are disabled and unable to get to the polls, or have religious beliefs that prevent them from heading to the polls.

The restrictions “leave out many legitimate reasons for being unable to vote on election day, such as being a poll worker at a different precinct in the same town or city, having a particularly overwhelming work schedule that day, or having to care for a sick relative,” Wilmot said in testimony.

Wilmot also testified in support of a bill (H 573) that would allow the lieutenant governor to become governor and appoint a new lieutenant governor if there is a vacancy in the Corner Office.

Rep. Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said the legislation provides an “important correction in the way we govern ourselves.”

Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift and Deval Patrick all served as governors who went without lieutenant governors at some point in their administrations, Kaufman noted. Cellucci and Swift both served as lieutenant governors and took over the top job after a vacancy; Patrick’s lieutenant governor, Tim Murray, resigned during Patrick’s second term.

The bill includes a provision eliminating the term “acting” when a lieutenant governor assumes the job of governor, Kaufman said, because “it just seems like an insult to them and to us.”

House Minority Leader Brad Jones (R-North Reading) submitted testimony for a bill establishing an independent redistricting commission (H 567), saying it would set up a “fair and impartial” process.

Lawmakers, led by the Democratic majority, most recently redrew the electoral district lines in 2011 based on the last Census.

“Allowing the Legislature to determine its redistricting is a conflict of interest; legislators are essentially given the power to determine who votes for them,” he wrote. “Deciding who votes for an elected official can be just as influential in an election as persuading voters to choose a particular candidate.”

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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