A Colorado corporation throws its weight around in Montana

  When Montanans first employed the ballot initiative in 1912, all four of the measures they passed had a single aim: to curtail the political power of Amalgamated Copper, the state’s mining giant. So it’s no small irony that in 2004, a mining corporation is using the initiative process to try to reverse the expressed will of Montana citizens.

Executives at Colorado-based Canyon Resources Inc. are unhappy with Montana voters’ 1998 decision to approve Initiative 137, which banned spraying cyanide over ore piles to chemically extract gold and silver. Because Canyon Resources is still eager to build a new cyanide heap-leach mine on the Blackfoot River, northwest of Helena, the company wants to overturn the ban.

So Canyon Resources bankrolled more than 93 percent of the successful effort to qualify Initiative 1472 for the November 2004 ballot, coming up with almost $600,000 to pay for gathering the signatures and other costs. If passed by voters, it would reverse the 1998 cyanide ban. Canyon’s publicists say allowing new leach mines would create jobs, while opponents fear — as they have for years — that water supplies will be contaminated.

Arguments on those points will rage in Montana, but all Americans should consider a more fundamental issue: Why do we allow the citizens’ initiative, which some say is democracy in its purest form, to be used as a weapon to subvert democracy?

One could argue that we’ve tried and failed to stop the practice. Montana and Massachusetts both passed laws that banned corporate contributions to ballot initiatives. Federal courts later struck them down, in the name of free speech.

But saying, "we tried, and the courts wouldn’t let us," is like blaming the Supreme Court for racism prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The more difficult truth is that we’ve failed to protect the right to self-governance that many Americans died to establish and defend.

When American colonists declared independence from England in 1776, they also freed themselves from control by the English corporations that dominated domestic businesses and extracted wealth from the colonies. After fighting to end this exploitation, our country's founders retained a healthy fear of corporations’ power and limited them to strictly business activities. States typically prohibited corporations from spending any money to influence public opinion in our early days.

In the 1800s, corporations gradually dismantled those barriers. By the century’s end, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations were persons entitled to constitutional rights, thus creating "corporate personhood." Soon, corporations won protections still denied to women and minorities. Even so, as recently as the 1970s, corporations faced meaningful limits to their political activity.

Then, in 1978, a former corporate lawyer, Lewis Powell, wrote the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in the case, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, which used the First Amendment to create a "right" for corporations to influence ballot initiatives. The Bellotti decision enabled corporations to wield immense power over local and state policy issues in many communities nationwide.

This affects Westerners especially, since every Western state in the Lower 48 except New Mexico allows ballot initiatives, and all permit referenda whereby state legislators may refer an issue to citizen vote.

In California this year, a consortium of corporate interests placed an initiative on the ballot to dramatically weaken the nation’s strongest consumer protection law. In Arizona, real estate interests are attempting to revoke public campaign financing for state elections, enacted by popular vote just six years ago, to limit money’s power over state elections.

Wal-Mart repeatedly has used ballot initiatives to overrule local policies that excluded the company’s supercenters. The company lost a high-profile battle in Inglewood, Calif., last spring when it tried to exempt itself from all local planning and environmental regulations. But what was an outrage one year sometimes becomes the law soon after.

In Montana, I expect voters will uphold the cyanide ban despite Canyon Resources’ advertising campaign. But the larger struggle — one to determine whether citizens or corporations will control the future of our communities — depends on citizens changing the rules of engagement and refusing to allow our energy to be consumed in defensive struggles against corporate assaults. Until we organize to return corporations to business activities exclusively, democracy will be a fading ideal.

Jeff Milchen Is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes from Bozeman, Montana, where he founded the nonprofit group, ReclaimDemocracy.org.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.