Capitol Letters – Week 15

The news stories out of Massachusetts and Texas this week were reminders of how small our politics can be at times. While we’ve provided you with your three minute weekly update on the happenings from the 2013 legislative session, we realize your thoughts and prayers are appropriately with the people of Boston. There’s a quote making its way around the internet in the wake of these attacks, and it reads as follows: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”  It’s from Mr. Rogers. And it works for us.

The right fights: Shining light on corporate and special interest political spending

Some of the fights we’re rightly fighting don’t get a lot of media attention, and the effort to shed light on corporate and special interest political spending is one of them. Why doesn’t the press want to cover this? Some say the issue, while important, is boring. But we here at Capitol Letters aim to prove them wrong. Watch:

The issue springs, in large, from the United States Supreme Court’s jurisprudence as set forth in the case of Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward and its progeny, whereby the court held that corporations are entitled to the same Fourteenth Amendment due process rights as natural citizens. Overlaying this doctrine with the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, which are specifically delineated in the context of political speech by such well-known cases as Whitney v. California and Herndon v. Lowry . . .

Alright. Maybe it is boring. And we’ll stop there before you nod off and a Capitol Letters co-author has a flashback to one particularly mediocre performance he put forth on a constitutional law exam several years ago.

But the issue is nonetheless critical to fair elections, and the Reader’s Digest version is this: The Supreme Court, in the infamous Citizens United case, held that political spending in federal elections by corporations (and unions, to be fair) is a form of protected speech. And boy have they spoken: According to opensecrets.org, so-called “independent expenditures” rose from around $200 million during the 2010 general election cycle to over $1 billion in 2012. You may have seen the product of independent expenditures on television last fall. Actually, unless you’re the type that watches PBS exclusively, you probably couldn’t avoid the incessant stream of slickly-produced attack ads.

To make matters worse, a more recent case, American Tradition Partnership, extended the Citizens United holding by striking down a Montana statute that bans corporate political spending on state elections. That means North Dakota’s decades-old ban on corporate and union political expenditures is also unconstitutional.

So without changes to existing North Dakota law, your aunt Dorothy would continue to be required to report her name and address if she contributes more than $200 to a political candidate. OmniCorp, Inc., on the other hand, could give $100,000 in corporate funds to some benign-sounding group — we’ll say “Mothers for Good Government” — to run television ads against that same candidate and neither OmniCorp nor those Mothers would have to report a thing.

That changes under SB 2299, legislation which incorporates language drafted by a Capitol Letters co-author to define “independent expenditure” and require strict disclosure of corporate and union political spending. The actual text of the bill makes for some great bedtime reading, but we hope you’ll sleep a little more soundly knowing that we’re shining a light on how corporations spend money to influence elections in North Dakota.

Yes, the Supreme Court has said corporations have a right to free speech. But we also have a right to make them stand up and be counted. That’s what SB 2299 does. Getting it passed was the right fight for North Dakota.

Head-shaker of the week: Getting held back on funding for Pre-K

Milk at snack breaks. Head Start. Children’s health insurance eligibility. The way kids have lost out on these issues, it may seem the GOP majority has been picking on North Dakota kids this session. And that’s never a fair fight. Legislators are big. Kids are teensy.

While we wish the majority would pick on someone their own size, North Dakota four-year-olds lost again this week with the defeat of HB 1356 by a vote of 59-34 in the House. This legislation would have provided a modest $2.6 million appropriation to fund the implementation of pre-Kindergarten in North Dakota. However, the head shaking really starts when you compare the House’s action to what is going on in other states on this issue.

Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama — hotbeds of liberalism, all — are moving towards universal pre-K. In fact, Alabama’s House of Representatives recently passed a 65% increase in funding for pre-K education by a vote of 86-10.

We are certain Alabama is a fine place that is home to wonderful people. But it seems you could historically count on North Dakota to do more to support the education of its youngest citizens than many states in the deep South. Now, even as North Dakota enjoys a budget surplus, Alabama is pulling away from us on early childhood education.

In an effort to at least slow down the head shaking, we’ll share some good news. Senator Phil Murphy of Portland worked to include a provision in SB 2229 which permits local school districts to fund pre-K with local tax dollars. That bill was signed by the Governor on April 15th, meaning pre-K will go forward where school boards throughout the state are so inclined. We imagine the program will be much more popular with kids and parents than it has been with legislators. We also predict we will secure state funding for pre-K in an upcoming legislative session, maybe even 2015.

So don’t get cocky, Alabama. North Dakota may be behind on pre-K now, but we’ll be hot on your tail soon enough.

A thank you from western North Dakota:

Before we close, we thought we’d share a very kind editorial from the Williston Herald thanking North Dakota Democrats for our efforts to address the challenges of the oil boom. We very much appreciate the sentiment, but we don’t need to be thanked. North Dakota is just a small town with long streets, as they say, and working to help our neighbors in places Williston is just the right thing to do.

Thanks for reading. As we head into what could be the session’s final week, we’ll have much to write about next Friday. We’re also hearing rumors that members of the GOP House majority might even try to bring back the oil extraction tax cut. Trust us: We’re all over that one should it happen.

Keep the faith, keep up the fight, and please start liking us on Facebook.

Sen. Mac Schneider

Rep. Kenton Onstad

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