HELENA – A new political group, a state senator and a businessman asked the Montana Supreme Court on Monday to remove Initiative 166 from the November general election ballot, calling it “a sham.”
Montanans Opposed to I-166, state Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, and Phil Lilleberg of Billings, owner of FP Inc., filed the petition against Attorney General Steve Bullock and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. Helena attorneys Chris J. Gallus and James E. Brown wrote the petition.
I-166 is a nonbinding policy statement that says corporations aren’t people and money isn’t political speech. If passed, it directs Montana’s congressional delegation to support a federal constitutional amendment to undo the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that removed barriers and allowed corporations and unions to spend unrestricted money in political campaigns.
It surfaced earlier this year when Montana’s 1912 ban on corporate spending on independent expenditures in elections was under legal attack by American Tradition Partnership. The U.S. Supreme Court last month struck down the Montana law as unconstitutional.
The group and individuals asked the Supreme Court to determine that I-166 “is not legally sufficient to appear on the state’s general election ballot, and that the statements prepared for the petition and the ballot do not meet the requirements of (state law).” They urged the court to strike the measure from the ballot and declare all petitions submitted on the proposed measure void.
“At its best, I-166 is an odd mixture of resolution, law constitutional amendment and revision, and as such, is not properly before the people for their vote,” the petition said. “I-166 is, quite simply put, a sham or a poll presented in a manner not comporting with law.”
In response, the sponsors of I-166 blasted the challenge, saying corporations will stop at nothing to block the measure.
“We are mad as hell,” said C.B. Pearson of Missoula, treasurer of Stand with Montanans: Corporations Aren’t People – Ban Corporate Campaign Spending. “This lawsuit is nothing more than corporate hired guns trying to deny the people of Montana a chance to vote on a citizens’ initiative, one that clearly states corporations aren’t people and money is not speech.”
The real question, Pearson said, is who’s funding this “frivolous lawsuit.” He said it smells like the tactics of the Anaconda Copper Mining Co., when the former company used its “thugs to silence the people of Montana” and its money to buy elections.
Meanwhile, those trying to remove the ballot measure contended that the attorney general’s determination that I-166 is legally sufficient is erroneous on these three grounds:
• The measure “requires elected officials to vote in a certain way and dictates or predetermines specific results.”
• It “acts as a resolution to require proposal of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
• And I-166 “effectively, and is indeed an amendment and revision to the constitution of the state of Montana, which violates the rule against multiple amendments in a single vote.”
Lewis said state Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, asked him if he would be willing to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Lewis said he agreed because of his concerns about the measure from the start.
“I’m just not sure as an elected official what the heck kind of obligation this puts on me the next session,” Lewis said in a phone interview. “What am I supposed to do with this? It’s kind of a gotcha deal.”
As of Monday, Pearson said the signature count for 1-166 was nearing 32,000, with 5 percent of the voters signing petitions in 61 of 100 of the state’s House districts. To qualify, it needed 24,337 total signatures, as well as those from 5 percent of the voters in 34 House districts.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at email@example.com.