HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed an initiative Thursday that supporters hope will boost a national effort to overturn the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to give unlimited money in political campaigns.

“You will send a signal to this entire world that Montana is not for sale,” Schweitzer said at a ceremony outside the Montana House where he signed Initiative 166.

Joining him in signing the measure were Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and former Secretary of State Verner Bertelsen.

I-166 is a nonbinding policy statement that calls on Montana elected and appointed state and federal officials to implement “a policy that corporations are not human beings with constitutional rights.”

It is in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. The court, in a 5-4 ruling, struck down federal restrictions on corporate spending as an infringement of corporations’ free-speech rights.

Soon after that, a group now known as American Tradition Partnership and others challenged Montana’s 1912 voter-approved initiative that banned independent political spending by corporations, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent. The District Court struck down the Montana law as unconstitutional.

Last December, the Montana Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, upheld the Montana law.

American Tradition Partnership asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up an appeal of the Montana ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court has blocked enforcement of the Montana law until it decides whether to hear an appeal.

Even if it passes, I-166 would change nothing because it has no force of law, but backers said it will send a strong message around the country.

The only ways to overturn the Citizens United decision are to amend the U.S. Constitution, a difficult task that has occurred only 27 times in U.S. history, or for the court to reverse its ruling eventually.

Schweitzer said Montanans aren’t afraid to take on tough causes.

“A hundred years ago, Montanans didn’t look at each other and say, ‘Well, gosh, maybe we ought to wait and see what they do in Washington, D.C.’ ” Schweitzer said. “A hundred years ago, Montanans stood together and said, ‘You can’t buy our government in Montana.’ We’ve always been leaders.

“It’s never been a concern of the people of Montana to stand up to Washington, D.C. We did it on the Patriot Act, we did it on Real ID and we’ll do it on bribery.”

When he and Bohlinger teamed up to run for governor and lieutenant governor in 2004 and 2008, Schweitzer said they wanted to send a signal about elections and decided not to accept money from political action committees, or PACs, even though it’s legal.

“We said you can’t buy a place at the front of the line with our administration,” the governor said, adding: “And today we want to make a point. This is our government, and we’re not going to allow any corporation to steal it from us.”

Montana is the only state proposing such an initiative, said C.B. Pearson, treasurer of Stand with Montanans: Corporations Aren’t People – Ban Corporate Spending. He said the group is getting financial help from Common Cause and Free Speech for People, two national organizations.

For I-166 to qualify for the ballot, backers must obtain the signatures of 5 percent of Montana voters, or 24,337 people, including 5 percent of the voters in 34 of the 100 state House districts by June 22.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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