Group tries to unite more beyond West Allis on campaign spending issue

Published on: 8/6/2013

West Allis — A movement opposing corporations' ability to contribute to political campaigns as if they were private citizens got its start locally in West Allis and is now on its way around the state.

In April 2012, West Allis voters overwhelmingly supported a referendum calling for a constitutional amendment establishing that corporations are not citizens and that limiting political contributions and spending isn't limiting free speech. Seventy percent of West Allis voters supported that advisory referendum.

Until then, only Madison and Dane County voters had called for a constitutional amendment. West Allis coming squarely down on going back to limiting corporate campaign contributions was a milestone, said Mary Laan, chairwoman of Move to Amend of Southeastern Wisconsin, an organization associated with United Wisconsin.

City's 'pivotal' role

Because West Allis voters had previously supported Scott Walker as governor, the group working toward an amendment to the U.S. Constitution interpreted the West Allis support as proof that the amendment proposal has widespread support, she said.

'It proved this was a bipartisan issue,' Laan said. 'West Allis was pivotal.'

So far, six Wisconsin, six counties — Chippewa, Dane, Dunn, Douglas, Eau Claire and Jefferson — and eight cities and towns — Madison, West Allis, Whitewater, Fort Atkinson, Westport, Exeter, Oakland, and Koshkonong — have passed similar resolutions, said Erik Kirkstein of Citizens United Wisconsin.

Now the group is on the verge of getting a similar referendum on the ballot next spring in Wauwatosa, is gathering signatures in Whitefish Bay and Shorewood for a referendum, will start gathering signatures in Waukesha this month and hopes to start in Racine later this year, she said.

In addition, a proposal for a statewide referendum has been introduced into the state assembly and five proposed amendments have been proposed in the House of Representatives, Laan said.

Although all the referendums are advisory, Laan said, 'they tell our legislators what we want.'

Court's decision

All are in response to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court 'Citizens United' decision that government restrictions on corporate contributions to political campaigns violate the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech. Citizens United is a conservative organization that favors less government with a stronger emphasis on free enterprise.

The problem with the ruling is that it gives corporations that have more cash to contribute undue influence on elections, according to groups that oppose the Supreme Court's decision.

Since the ruling, 16 states and more than 500 municipalities have gone on record calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling, Kirkstein said.

Amendment process

The constitution provides that an amendment may be proposed either by the Congress with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures. None of the 27 amendments to the constitution have been proposed by constitutional convention.

After being approved by Congress, the proposed amendment goes to the states for approval. A proposed amendment becomes part of the constitution as soon as it is ratified by at least three-fourths, or 38, of the states.