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Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2010,  Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and SpeechNow.org v Federal Election Commission, gave rise to what is commonly known as the Super PAC.  Unlike traditional PACs, Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited money from individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations to support or oppose candidates, as long as they do not coordinate directly with candidates or political parties.  If organized as a nonprofit 501(c)4 group, Super PACs can keep their donors secret.   And all these expenditures are tax-exempt.

Clearly, these Supreme Court decisions affect financing of federal elections for President and Congress.  But why is this a relevant issue for a local city council or state legislature to address?  For three main reasons:

1.  Because Super PAC money is increasingly being used to influence local elections at the state, county and city level. For example:

  • State Governor:  The recall election of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin highlighted the record $63 million spent by both sides.  Outside spending on both sides totaled $34.2 million, much of this raised outside Wisconsin through Super PAC contributions.
  • State Judiciary:  In North Carolina, a new Super PAC has been formed to help re-elect state Supreme Court Justice Paul M. Newby, opposed by Democratic challenger Sam Ervin IV, a judge on the state Court of Appeals.
  • County Commissioner:  In Durham, North Carolina, a Super PAC started by a local developer spent money to support three incumbent county commissioners who voted for a controversial development in an environmentally sensitive watershed.
  • City Mayor:   Super PAC money is poised to influence the 2013 New York City mayor’s race and push the timeline for candidates to enter the race.
  • City Council: During the April 2012 elections for Oklahoma City Council, the Super PAC “Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum” spent $400,000 on four candidates; three of these four candidates won their campaigns.

The effect of Super PAC money on state legislative races is not yet clear, because “late, fragmented and non-existent” state campaign reporting deadlines make the data difficult for investigative reporters to access, according to  an article by the Columbia Journalism Review. However, a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that big donors to state Senate and House campaigns are big donors to Super PACs, which indicates that future Super PAC influence at the state level could be sizeable.

2.  Because state and city campaign finance limits have been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Citizens United renders obsolete the existing laws in 24 states which limit outside expenditures in state elections, including Texas (Elec. Code §253.094). To avoid legal ramifications, some states are looking at repealing these laws.  One state, Montana, took the battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with the case American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v Bullock. The Montana Supreme Court had ruled that Citizens United did not apply to Montana’s campaign finance laws. Even though 20 states filed briefs in support of Montana’s state limits on corporate money, and despite dissenting opinion by four Justices, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Montana Supreme Court’s favorable finding without hearing oral argument, citing Citizens United.
  • While the Austin City Charter, Title 2, Chapter 2.2 places strict limits on contributions to and expenditures made by the campaigns of individual candidates, it places no dollar limit on “independent expenditures” by Super PACs outside of individual campaigns.  Even if the City were to attempt to attempt to limit these expenditures, those limits would likely be found unconstitutional, if tested in the courts, as the states are now discovering.

3.  Because Super PAC spending corrupts our political system, weakens political debate and marginalizes voters. Super PACs allow a relatively few super-rich individuals and artificial entities to have a greatly magnified and inappropriate influence over elections, drowning out the voices of the electorate and often the candidates themselves, and pushing the issues of poor and middle class citizens to the sidelines. USA Today reported in April 2012 that a few wealthy donors from a handful of states account for the majority of Super PAC donations; nearly $110 million in the 2012 election came from just 46 people, businesses and organizations. In essence, Super PACs translate economic success into political power, corrupting the “one person, one vote” principle upon which our electoral process is based.  The political ads and automated “robocalls” purchased by Super PACs reduce the political debate to a horse race, whipped into a lather by negative attacks.  The end result of these brutal campaigns is an electorate that is poorly informed at best and demoralized to the point of non-participation at worst, represented by politicians who must spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising and campaigning instead of doing the important work the People elected them to do, and who are then obligated to the special interests and big donors that fund their campaigns.  An April 2012 poll by the Brennan Center for Justice found that Super PAC spending has led to a widespread perception of government corruption. Citizens of all political persuasions now largely believe that elected officials favor the interests of Super PAC donors over the public interest, and those citizens are less likely to vote as a result — particularly those who are low-income, less educated, and live in communities of color.

Clearly, the corrupting influence of infinite, often secret Super PAC money on our democratic republic is not limited to the federal level. Indeed, Super PAC money has the potential to have an even bigger influence on local elections.  It would a mistake to think that the examples given above are isolated incidents.   According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Super PAC spending exceeded $680 million dollars for the 2012 election cycle nationwide, far outstripping the “independent expenditures” in the 2004 and 2008 election cycles before Citizens United. It is only a matter of time before deep-pocketed moneyed special interests buy out the hearts, minds and seats of local governments and judiciaries.

More than 300 local municipalities, in addition to eleven state legislatures and 100 members of Congress, have voiced their support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to regulate the expenditure of money spent by artificial entities to influence the electoral process.   We’re working to add Austin City Council and the Texas Legislature to that list.  Join us at our next meeting – check the calendar for details.

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