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Tester takes aim at Citizens United, dark money with trio of bills

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Saying campaign finance reform shouldn’t be a partisan fight, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Friday introduced three bills aimed at the issue, and he’s looking to his colleagues across the aisle to help shine a light on dark money.

Tester’s measures include the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, along with the Sun Act, which would require political nonprofits to release the names of those who donate more than $5,000.

Tester’s bills also take aim at the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United ruling.

“This decision categorized corporations as people and gave them the same rights as a rancher from Sidney, a nurse in Kalispell or a schoolteacher in Anaconda,” Tester said. “This decision created a fundamental threat to our democracy and needs to be resolved.”

Montana voters adopted I-166 in 2012 by a 75 percent margin. In doing so, they established a state policy stating that corporations aren’t entitled to constitutional rights because they aren’t people.

The measure was eventually overturned in court, though CB Pearson, who served as treasurer for I-166, said the effort could see more support as the public comes to understand the influence of money on elections.

“We had a good law, and that decision was overturned,” said Pearson. “But we got strong support from Alan Simpson yesterday for the (federal) constitutional initiative.”

In passing the state initiative in 2012, voters also directed Montana’s congressional delegation to propose a resolution in Congress amending the U.S. Constitution to state that corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech.

To follow that mandate, Tester introduced a constitutional amendment in June 2013 in an effort to overturn Citizens United, saying the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision distorts Montana values and undermines the democratic process.

Citing growing interest among both parties and support from Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, Tester plans to give the effort another go.

“I hear from Democrats and Republicans about the problems with the campaign system we have today,” Tester said. “People are pretty much sick of it, in Montana at least. It’s really important that we get these out for public debate so people can see the impact of these dollars.”

Tester was first elected to the U.S Senate in 2006 before the Citizens United ruling. He was re-elected in 2012 after the ruling was rendered. That year, he defeated Denny Rehberg, and of the $50 million spent on the race, nearly half came from dark money sources, Tester said.

“I couldn’t tell you who put money in,” he said. “Their ads didn’t necessary reflect Montana values. It would be good to know who’s behind those ads. In ’12, they tired to make me something I wasn’t. I anticipate that happens in elections across the country.”

According to Reuters, eight Democratic senators are up for re-election in 2018 in Republican-leaning states, or states that voted for Trump last November, including Montana.

Political pundits suggest that may place those eight Democrats, including Tester, in a tough spot as the Senate is asked to consider President Donald Trump’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Still, Tester said, he will ask Neil Gorsuch where he stands on Citizens United before deciding whether or not to back the nominee.

“I got elected before Citizens United and re-elected after, and I heard a lot from voters back home about Citizens United and being deluged by campaign commercials,” Tester said. “We will unequivocally be asking Gorsuch about his views on Citizens United and campaign finance reform.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com