BOSTON — Concord Rep. Cory Atkins feels one of her colleagues this election cycle could become the first local victim of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
To hear Atkins tell it, the court’s January 2010 ruling means there’s nothing stopping corporate interests from swooping in days before the election and dumping large amounts of cash into Super PAC ads targeting a particular representative or senator, who would then be unable to respond proportionately.
“It’s unbalanced speech,” said Atkins, adding she disagreed with the court’s ruling that restrictions on corporate political campaign ads violated constitutional free speech protections. “It’s a megaphone versus a whisper. And it’s a megaphone 24-7 versus a whisper for five minutes. They know how to get a message and stay on a message and blast it, blast it, blast it until it’s in your head.”
While unable to alter the possibility of Super PAC spending on state and local races, Atkins and other members of the Legislature are mounting a concerted push for the Legislature to approve a resolution calling on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United ruling and for in-state disclosure laws to give voters information about the sources and amounts of corporate spending.
“I’m kind of a free rights person when it comes to a lot of this stuff, but something is prostituting the process,” said Sen. Stephen Brewer, using the example of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s political giving to presidential candidates as a prime example.
“If Sheldon Adelson and Sheldon Adelson’s wife are bankrolling Mitt Romney to a great degree, and bankrolled Newt Gingrich I think to the tune of $20 million to $25 million, there’s got to be something wrong with the system,” Brewer said.
The Senate on Thursday attempted to debate the resolution, which has been co-sponsored with Atkins by Sen. Jamie Eldridge. While no one actively opposed its introduction or faulted the plan on its merits, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr delayed its consideration until next Thursday.
“I’m a little disappointed, but I’m eager to have this debate. There’s, I think, widespread support for this not only amongst the Senate but the public in general,” Eldridge said after the session.
Eldridge said more than 70 residents turned out in Newburyport in the sweltering heat Wednesday night “very fired up to get this resolution passed and make the point that corporations have far too much influence in the policy sphere now and it will be even worse under the Citizens United decision.”
Senate President Therese Murray also said she supports the resolution, and Atkins claims majority support in the House for corporate disclosure of donations after 83 House lawmakers, including two Republicans, signed a letter backing H 308 and S 1985.
“I don’t believe that corporations are individuals and that kind of money that we’re seeing put into the campaigns on the national level is obscene,” Murray said after Thursday’s Senate session. Murray this fall is on track to face a Republican challenger, Tom Keyes, who nearly beat hear in 2010.
Atkins said Bay State Democrats got a laugh out of watching the impact of Super PAC money on the GOP presidential primary, but take seriously the potential for Super PAC money to influence local races.
“This could go local in a heartbeat,” she said. “There’s no controls on it and most people don’t have the resources to respond.”
The Election Laws Committee put the disclosure proposals into a study, usually a dead end for most bills, but Atkins said the bills have been taken out of study, a move she described as a “smoke signal” that the proposals may advance before formal legislative meetings end for the two-year session on July 31.
The Senate on Thursday approved an extension until July 9 for the Election Laws Committee to report on the bills.
Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat and co-chair of the committee, said the state is limited in what it can do, and the committee wanted the extra time to make sure it addressed the issue “prudently and properly.”
“I don’t care what your persuasion is. I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on. This is a very concerning issue for everybody where you have undisclosed money that can come from either side that can basically really sway elections,” Finegold said.
Eldridge said the bills would have an immediate impact on this year’s elections. “If we can get that passed into law, if corporations do spend money in the fall election, that will be reported to OCPF,” he said.
Members of the Democracy Amendment Coalition of Massachusetts this month said the number of cities and towns that support overturning Citizens United, as expressed by town meetings and city councils, is up to 66. Since mid-May, Newbury, Richmond, Brookline, Quincy, Wendell and Bernardston have added their communities to the list, which already includes cities like Boston, Worcester and Amherst.
“Sixty-six communities is pretty overwhelming. This is a huge grassroots movement,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause.
According to the coalition, state lawmakers in Rhode Island, Vermont, New Mexico and Hawaii have already passed resolutions. The coalition includes groups like Common Cause Massachusetts, MassPIRG, MassVOTE, Public Citizen and Move to Amend.
Wilmot said volunteers are gathering signatures to put non-binding question on ballots in November in state Senate and representative districts. Attorney General Martha Coakley also backs the resolution and is among 11 state attorneys general who have written Congress asking for a Constitutional amendment.
U.S. Rep. John Tierney’s campaign, in a heated contest with former Senate Minority LeaderRichard Tisei this cycle, this week called attention to the formation of a new Virginia-based super PAC called Massachusetts Forward Inc., leaders of which have declined to reveal which race it will try to influence.