Campaign finance case part of nationwide push

By Patsy R. Brumfield

Daily Journal

The recent court decision declaring part of the state’s campaign finance laws unconstitutional is part of a nationwide effort to turn back laws restricting citizen participation on ballot initiatives.

Paula Avelar, an attorney with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, said Friday his libertarian organization seeks to take such cases before the U.S. Supreme Court for a final decision on this and other similar state laws.

“If these laws are too onerous for unions or corporations, they’re also on individuals and their neighbors,” he said, referring to the controversial Citizens United decision by the nation’s highest court that opened the doors to unlimited political spending by deep-pocketed groups or businesses.

State Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, is one legislator warning that such rollbacks will prevent citizens from knowing who is giving what to support or fight constitutional changes.

“This is an out-of-state group that believes there should be no disclosure of money in campaigns to change the constitution,” said Blount, who is vice chairman of the Senate Elections Committee.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock deemed unconstitutional parts of Mississippi’s laws requiring registration and financial reporting by groups or individuals involved with ballot initiative campaigns.

State laws require registration and periodic reporting by people or groups who spend more than $200 in a year on such efforts.

Attorney General Jim Hood said Wednesday that his office will appeal Aycock’s decision.

Blount also sees the Institute’s push as a nationwide effort against the public’s knowing who is giving what to which political candidate or issue, although Avelar insists it’s only about ballot measures.

The 2011 lawsuit at issue was filed days before a statewide election whose ballot contained several initiatives to change the Mississippi constitution.

Filing the lawsuit were five Oxford-area residents, who became frustrated and concerned about Mississippi’s campaign finance laws as they sought to advocate for their opinion about one of those initiatives.

Attempts by the Daily Journal were unsuccessful to contact any of them.

In her 33-page opinion, Aycock agreed with the plaintiffs that small groups or individuals should be able to voice their political opinions in paid ways, such as advertisements and signs, without being required to register and report periodically with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office, as the law requires.

She also wrote that the small-group/individual mandates violate the First Amendment by “chilling” free speech.

Although his office will appeal to the 5th Circuit, Hood’s first public statement about the decision did not resound with optimism.

“Although our federal district courts have attempted in years past to uphold progressive state campaign finance laws that let the people know who was funding campaigns, the federal appellate courts have unfortunately opened the floodgates for corporate America to buy elected decisions,” he said in a statement Monday.

Will this initial victory spur new assaults on the law, to overturn registration and reporting of more substantial spending or political committees?

Aycock wrote that any decision there would be “for another day.”

Friday, Avelar insisted the U.S. Supreme Court has closed the door on that possibility by saying elimination of candidate rules invites the risk of bribery.

But you cannot bribe an idea, he says about constitutional changes.

Blount remains skeptical.

“They are absolutely wrong” about the state’s campaign finance laws, he insisted.

Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice touts itself a libertarian organization assisting individuals “whose most basic rights are denied by the government.”

Among IJ’s initial financial backers was Charles Koch, who with his brother, David, is a key supporter of the politically influential, conservative Tea Party movement.

Blount said, contrary to Aycock’s opinion, it’s not difficult for campaigns to keep track of who gives money, whether it’s a campaign for public office or for or against a ballot initiative. He said disclosure of that information also is not burdensome.

“I believe it’s good public policy for people to know who are the major donors to a political campaign,” Blount said.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican and the state’s chief elections officer, declined repeated Daily Journal contacts for comment.

Hosemann, in his official position, was the first-named defendant in the Oxford group’s lawsuit.

His office also is charged with maintaining the campaign finance law registration and reporting.

patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com