Last Thursday, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock was served with a lawsuit filed by an organization "dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda" and a Bozeman-based Tea Party activist challenging the state's century-old ban on corporate political spending.
The suit, which also names Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth, follows the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Jan. 21 ruling that blocked the ban on corporate political spending, a ruling Bullock opposed.
The plaintiffs are the Colorado-based Western Tradition Partnership, which calls itself "the leading organization fighting the anti-jobs, anti-taxpayer policy agenda of extreme environmentalist front groups," and Bozeman's Champion Painting, owned by Ken Champion, a member of the Gallatin County Campaign for Liberty and the Bozeman Tea Party. Champion, according to the lawsuit, "is concerned with the way inflation, taxation, and spending are exploiting, impacting, and bankrupting America and Montana's small businesses," and he seeks to spend corporate funds to support candidates with similar political beliefs.
Should the plaintiffs prevail, state conservation groups fear a profusion of corporation money could tip the balance in favor of pro-industry candidates.
"I think the Western Tradition Partnership would like to eviscerate the very laws that protect Montana's clean air, cold rivers and public health, and it sounds like they'd love to use corporate money to do it," says Sarah Cobler, program director with Montana Conservation Voters. "I'm pretty nervous about Exxon or Arch Coal or someone else pulling out the stops and airing TV ads in state legislative races where individuals can only contribute $160 each, and where candidates are teachers, farmers and other regular folks."
In 1912, in the era of Montana's "Copper Kings," 76 percent of Montana voters approved Initiative 118, banning corporate contributions to political candidates. Twenty-three other states have similar laws, all threatened by the Supreme Court's ruling.
"Corporate electioneering," Bullock wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief filed last year, "corrupts the relationship between public officials and the public interest."
Western Tradition Partnership and Champion filed their lawsuit in Helena District Court. The case is currently pending.