Sunday, December 19, 2004

Wealthy Interests Try To Hijack Democratic Process

by Gary Houser

In an unbelievably blatant move to serve the interests of wealthy individuals and corporations in Ohio, Gov. Taft has called for a special session of the state legislature. In a classic example of "doublespeak", Taft and the Republican leadership are using the false pretense of "campaign finance reform" to mask one of the biggest giveaways of political power in Ohio history. If rammed through, their bill would completely undermine the democratic ideals of this state and hand essential control over the political system to these wealthy interests.

A special session has not been called since 1976. The purpose of such sessions is to address an emergency situation. Instead of addressing an emergency, Gov. Taft is creating one.

Apparently, the notion of campaign finance reform held by Taft and Republican leaders is to do away with it. Rather than reduce the influence of money over elections, this proposed bill (HB/SB 1) drastically increases it by quadrupling the amount of money that can be given to candidates from $2500 to $10,000. Even more outrageously, another section would effectively dismantle a nearly 100 year-old law aimed at preventing corporations from using their vast commercial treasuries to overwhelm the electoral process.

While some Ohio Democrats are rightly opposing the quadrupling of spending limits, they appear to be missing the most insidious and dangerous aspect of this mockery of reform. Because of a loophole large enough to drive a Mack truck through, there would be NO LIMIT WHATSOEVER on the amount of money corporations could spend on what are called "electioneering" ads.

Corporations could advocate for or against candidates and ballot measures to the tune of MILLIONS OF DOLLARS if they so choose. The $10,000 figure pales next to the amounts that could be spent on these ads. In order to not be counted as a direct contribution, these ads would focus on the issues related to a candidate or ballot measure and simply avoid explicit use of the words "vote for" or "vote against." By pursuing this end run, they could batter or praise as much as they wish.

For two reasons, it would appear that the timing of this move is no accident. Ohio's perenially key role in presidential elections was highlighted even further this year. In the wake of four more years of a president closely aligned with corporate interests, this is a stunningly transparent move to consolidate corporate control over this key swing state. Secondly, this attempt at a power grab has been planned to occur at precisely the time when the resources of many Democratic Party and progressive groups are tied up with the re-count issue.

The 'commercial treasuries of corporations' refers to the proceeds from the sale of corporate products. When a customer buys a product, he or she is not giving that corporation permission to influence the outcome of an election with that money. It would be unethical for a corporation to use this money in such a way. Yet this is precisely what would be allowed by HB 1/SB 1.

Some perspective is needed regarding the magnitude of the changes being promoted. A hundred years ago, our ancestors in Ohio had compelling reasons to fight hard to achieve citizen controls over corporations. For decades, legislation favoring commercial interests was being routinely passed as a "payback" for campaign contributions. The preamble of the 1908 law stated that its purpose was "to prevent the corruption of elections and political parties by corporations." This law to safeguard democracy is a great legacy that these citizens left for us. The fate of that legacy is now in our hands.

At a time when polls consistently reveal a serious concern about big money and politics, non-profit public interest groups and the small donation levels of working class people would not be able to compete with the flood of wealthy money that would be released. The strategy of proponents is to rush this bill through a special session before the public even has a chance to recognize the enormity of what is happening.

The importance of stopping this "blitzkrieg" disguised as campaign finance reform cannot be overstated. All who support a democratic process are strongly urged to immediately contact their representatives and senators and speak out against this bald-faced power grab by corporate interests in our state. We must not allow the brave efforts and protective legacy of those Ohio citizens who stood up to corporate power 100 years ago to be squandered.

-Gary Houser has been involved in efforts to use campaign finance reform to prevent corporate money from dominating the political process, and co-authored the first ballot initiative in the country (Arcata, Calif.) to assert local democratic control over corporate activities that impact the community. He now lives in SE Ohio.

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