After battling city officials all the way to the Utah Supreme Court over whether enough petition signatures had been collected to force a referendum, the residents of Sandy, Utah, will decide the fate of "big box" retail development at the ballot box.
In a state where controlling growth often is equated with communism, the court came down firmly on the side of citizens seeking to stop Sandy’s City Council from rezoning industrial land to allow a new Wal-Mart and Home Depot. The court, ruling 5-0, said, "The exercise of the people's referendum right is of such importance that it properly overrides individual (corporation’s) economic interests."
Even though they won the initial battle, Sandy’s residents may find the court’s words hollow.
Why? The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1978 that corporations have an unlimited "right" to spend corporate funds influencing ballot questions. As citizens in dozens of communities have learned, that power enables giant corporations to turn ballot measures — theoretically the purest form of democracy — into yet another sphere of corporate dominance.
In May, Wal-Mart spent almost $400,000 in a Flagstaff, Ariz., to run its own ballot initiative and reverse a size cap that the city council had passed on big-box stores. The company outspent the size cap’s defenders 3-to-1 — a whopping $44 for each vote it received — en route to winning 51 percent of the vote.
Wal-Mart’s ad campaigns painted the size cap as a union and governmental attack on citizens’ rights, and ran an ad that equated opponents with Nazi book-burners. That ad created an angry backlash, but only after most of the votes had been cast in mail-in balloting.
Becky Daggett of Friends of Flagstaff's Future, which supported efforts to uphold the size cap, said the corporate funding "absolutely changed the election results from what they’d have been if only local citizens were participating in the campaign."
This is hardly what this country’s founders had in mind. Corporations originally were forbidden from influencing government or elections in the states, and for good reason. When American colonists declared independence from England in 1776, they also freed themselves from control by English corporations that extracted colonists’ wealth and dominated trade.
They retained a healthy fear of corporate power, and wisely limited corporations exclusively to business activities, setting up barriers to prevent them from corrupting politics. In most states, corporations could not make political or charitable contributions, nor could they spend money to influence law-making.
In the 1800s, corporations gradually dismantled many of those barriers. By 1886, a Supreme Court majority ignored the fact that corporations are unmentioned in our Constitution, ruling that corporations are legally "persons" entitled to constitutional rights. Soon, corporations had perverted the Bill of Rights itself to gain many of its protections -- well before women and minorities had full rights as persons.
Yet, as recently as the 1970s, corporations faced meaningful limits on their political power -- limits that a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell thought too burdensome. In 1971, Powell argued in a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that big business should expand its power, noting "the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change."
One month later, President Nixon appointed Powell to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he went on to write the majority opinion in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the 1978 decision creating a First Amendment "right" for corporations to influence ballot measures and other political questions. That ruling is what allows corporate executives to run their own ballot initiatives if a local government makes a decision they dislike. This enables corporations to impose their will on communities around the country.
So when the citizens of Sandy go to the voting booth this fall, they’ll battle against a company that needed to spend less than 60 seconds’ worth of corporate revenue to defeat a skilled and well-organized citizen effort in Flagstaff. Whether or not we’re concerned by the proliferation of big-box stores, we all should be alarmed by this perversion of democracy.
The reasons that drove our country's founders to keep business creations subordinate to democracy are even more compelling today. Until we limit corporations to business activities and revoke their ill-gotten political power, democracy will be in trouble. Citizens still can win some local battles, but the larger struggle — one to determine whether citizens or corporations control the future of our communities and country — must take place nationwide.
Jeff Milchen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is the director of ReclaimDemocracy.org in Bozeman, Montana.
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 email@example.com.