Campaign finance ruling studied for state impact

By Patsy R. Brumfied/NEMS Daily Journal

Officials in Jackson aren’t sure if Mississippi’s campaign finance laws will be changed by a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday.
In that 5-4 ruling, the nation’s highest court rejected decades-old curbs on corporate campaign spending. The ruling also likely applies to labor unions.
The court invoked the Constitution’s First Amendment or free-speech clause, saying the government lacks a legitimate basis to restrict independent campaign expenditures by corporations.
“In essence, they turned the corporate dogs loose,” said Dr. Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
The practical effect, he said “will be to see both parties catering more toward corporate interests that can give more.”
The ruling does not change the ban on a company’s direct contributions to a political campaign. Companies can organize and alert employees to their PACs, but the companies still cannot give money from their general treasuries to the PACs.
“What the ruling did … was erase bans on corporations’ abilities to spend money in support of a candidate,” explained Ashby Jones of The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog.
He cited an example from Loyola Law School’s Rick Hasen’s: On Wednesday, before the opinion, if your company wanted to influence the outcome of an election, it had to set up a political action committee and contributions into it were limited to $5,000 per individual.
“But today, things are very different. Google or IBM, for instance, can spend an unlimited amount of money in support of a candidate.”
The decision upends the court’s precedent that corporations may not use their profits to support or oppose candidates. It also seems likely to apply to the political role of labor unions.
However, no clear-cut information was available late Thursday from the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees state elections.
“We’re in the process of reviewing the ruling to determine the implications,” said Pamela Weaver, spokesman for Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.
Mississippi’s current campaign finance law makes distinctions between individual and company contributions:
n $1,000 per year, per party or candidate for companies
n Unlimited donations by individuals
The Supreme Court appears to have ruled that distinction unconstitutional, saying corporations are “people” with the same First Amendment free-speech rights as regular people.
State Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford and chairman of Judiciary Committee B, said he believes the court decision “changes the campaign landscape immediately,” especially in north Mississippi, where a heated race for the 1st District House seat is brewing.
“I think this decision directly impacts that race,” Tollison said.
Republicans hope to unseat first-term Democrat Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville.
As for state law, Tollison said he expects some study to determine if changes need to be made by the Legislature.
Notably, the court did not strike down finance limits altogether, just the corporate-individual distinction.
Mississippi also limits donations to judicial candidates, but those contribution limits do not draw distinctions between corporate and individual donors.
Mississippi Common Cause decried the decision, saying that it “turns One Man One Vote and the First Amendment to the U.S. Bill of Rights on its head.”
The effect will be to increase influence on elections by deep-pocketed special interests, a Common Cause e-mail said.
Joe Atkins, a longtime political analyst and University of Mississippi journalism professor, termed the decision “absolutely outrageous.”
And he predicted the possibility of “dramatic change” in campaigns as corporations are free to spend to influence voters.

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.