A ruling handed down last week by the U.S. Supreme Court has fundamentally changed the nation's campaign finance laws and sent some state officials scurrying for their law books.
On Thursday, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations, nonprofit groups and trade unions may now spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for or against politicians - provided those expenditures are independent of the candidate and the campaign.
The court's ruling, legal experts say, has eliminated the boundary between individuals and corporations in making independent campaign expenditures.
Writing for the five-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said independent expenditures don't corrupt the political process.
"This Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," Kennedy wrote. "That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy."
That ruling sent officials with the state Ethics Commission into high gear, as they sought to rewrite the state's campaign finance rules.
On Friday, the commission held a daylong public hearing on a series of new campaign rules designed to bring the state in compliance with the court's ruling. Ethics Commission Executive Director Marilyn Hughes said the ruling has changed the complexion of state political campaigns.
"Corporations can't give, they can spend," she said. "They can make unlimited expenditures from their own treasury funds that are independent of the candidate."
But those expenditures, she said, cannot be coordinated by a candidate. Previously corporations were required to use political action committees to make political expenditures and those funds were limited by rule.
"This amendment would conform to the case ruling," she said. "That ruling says corporations can give an unlimited amount from the treasury funds to spend toward independent expenditures which are not coordinated with candidate committees or electioneering communication, which are expenditures made immediately before elections."
State Labor Commissioner Lloyd Fields predicted the court's action would actually limit political speech.
"It's going to lessen the voice of the little guy," he said. "It's going to affect everyone."
Fields said the change would allow the business community to increase its support for conservatives and give labor unions the opportunity to increase support for progressives. …