Businesses get go-ahead to spend on candidates

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 7, 2010 - 9:11 PM

A federal judge's decision puts Minnesota in line with the U.S. Supreme Court, allowing unlimited corporate spending on political ads.

In a ruling with broad implications for political advertising, a federal judge on Friday declared unconstitutional Minnesota's restrictions on spending by corporations to support or oppose state and local political candidates.

The decision means that businesses can spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads. It was a victory for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which had sued to overturn the state restrictions as infringing on free speech.

The ruling doesn't lift bans on corporations contributing directly to political candidates' campaign funds, but allows them to make so-called independent expenditures on behalf of candidates.

The ruling was widely expected because it conforms with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision clearing the way for such corporate spending in federal races.

But the decision by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in St. Paul is likely to spur additional calls in Minnesota for new rules requiring corporations to disclose how they are spending money to influence elections.

Lawmakers have not reached agreement on proposed legislation on reporting requirements for corporations.

"Starting today, these groups could spend unlimited money without having to disclose where the money is coming from and what they are spending it on," said Mike Dean, head of Common Cause Minnesota. "Without legislative action, the court's decision will create a Wild West of corporate spending in political campaigns."

But Chamber of Commerce spokesman Mike Franklin said the organization supports some of the disclosure requirements under consideration.

"We're going to take a look at what some of our new actions are, starting [Saturday], and probably start designing a responsible independent campaign for the fall, which is a very consequential election for business," he said.

In addition to radio and TV advertising, corporations might use billboards, Internet blogs or letters to support or oppose candidates.

Franklin said the ruling could put corporations in Minnesota on par with unions, which have been able to buy political ads supporting or opposing candidates. "The culture in Minnesota for more than a generation has been that corporate money is verboten, and that has changed," he said.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in January, the chamber sued to block county attorneys from enforcing the state law. Because the chamber is based in St. Paul, its lawsuit named Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner as a defendant, but Magnuson's ruling applies statewide.

Gaertner said that Magnuson's decision was "not at all surprising" and that she "can't imagine" that her office would appeal because the U.S. Supreme Court's decision doesn't leave much room for a challenge, according to the Associated Press.

While the Supreme Court's decision struck down federal laws restricting corporate spending in congressional races, it also put in jeopardy similar restrictions in 24 states, including Minnesota.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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