Monday, July 26, 2004

The $250,000 Gorilla

With the country's eyes on the Democratic Convention in Boston, where millions of corporate dollars being spent on parties for politicians, a story from Santa Rosa, CA serves as a nice reminder of how big money attempts to influence decisions at all levels of politics. 

In 2003, the citizens of Santa Rosa voted to ban fireworks in their city in response to a costly fire.  This past March, American Promotional Events (APE), a fireworks distributor, spent more than $250,000 in an effort to overturn the ban, helping to set a fundraising records for municipal elections in the county.  APE's contributions accounted for 90% of the money spent by opponents of the ban.  Despite this huge influx of corporate cash, voters upheld the ban by a 57 to 43 margin.

There's nothing wrong with citizens getting together to promote or oppose a policy or legislation, and spending some money in the process.   It is a problem though, when wealthy corporate interests can use their financial advantages to push an agenda that a citizen can't.  APE was able almost single-handedly to drive the issue back before the voters of Santa Rosa, whereas the average citizen or even twenty or a hundred average citizens could not have afforded to do so. 

Allowing corporations like APE to contribute unlimited sums in initiative campaigns creates a corporatocracy, not a democracy.  The obvious solution would be to institute contribution limits for initiatives and to disallow corporate contributions.  If the owners of a corporation want to give some money, they can do so to the same extent as the rest of us. 

Unfortunately, the rushed and ill-conceived reasoning of the 1976 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo continues to have far-reaching undemocratic effects.  Under its skewed logic, other courts have been unwilling to support efforts to regulate the huge amounts of money which so often flow into the initiative process.  Plenty of facts are in from states and localities all over the country to recognize that big money allows wealthy special interests to corrupt the otherwise democratic initiative process.  At the next opportunity, the Supreme Court should step up to the plate and right this wrong.


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