Push Against Corporate Political Speech Faces Uphill Battle in Raleigh

March 4, 2015
Mark Binker

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina would push Congress to help head off the flow of corporate money into the federal, state and local elections under a measure filed by Democrats and favored by Move to Amend, a citizens group calling for a federal constitutional amendment.

"Today, we see elected offices at all levels, including the judiciary, commodities on an open market," said Tom Coulson, a member of Move to Amend who spoke at the legislature Wednesday morning.

House Bill 125 is a resolution that would call on Congress to begin the process of amending the Constitution in a way that would allow the Federal Elections Commission to more tightly regulate campaign finances, particularly money spent directly by corporations and piped by wealthy individuals through nonprofit groups.

North Carolina saw a barrage of so-called "dark money" spending during the 2014 general election, with the U.S. Senate race between Republican victor Thom Tillis and Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan becoming the most expensive in the nation and the most expensive in North Carolina history. Outside money flowed into other contests as well, including a state Supreme Court race and several legislative races.

"Corporations are not people. They shouldn't have the same rights as people," said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, who said that the influence of corporations on elections can be felt in state tax policy and other laws.

Insko pointed to a controversial gas drilling measure that was nearly passed with little notice as an example of corporate spending by energy interests influencing the process.

"It's moving down to the city councils and county commissions," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, pointing to the efforts of national conservative groups to bring outside money to bear on local races.

Democratic lawmakers and those lobbying for the bill said they had initially been rebuffed by GOP lawmakers who control the General Assembly and were told that their bill represented a partisan strike against Republicans.

"So, they want to take free speech away from citizens," said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, who has been deeply involved in a number of elections issues. "They're all for protecting free speech as long as it's their speech."

Asked whether corporations ought not to be able to participate without restrictions in the political process, Rucho asked, "They pay taxes like everybody else, don't they?"

While there is no guarantee a bill will or won't be heard, Republican leaders in the House have assigned House Bill 125 to the Rules Committee, a step often associated with killing a piece of legislation. Uphill battle not withstanding, Insko said she and others backing the bill wanted to make sure the issue was kept alive and that people who want to see election reform had a voice.

"I think it's really important to keep this issue before the people," she said.

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