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Corporate involvement could change campaigns

ATLANTA --- The pieces are being put into place for businesses and special interests to have a larger presence in state elections.

Over recent months, an organization is being formed to coordinate spending by businesses interested in electing sympathetic judges. It plans to gear up next year.

In recent years, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce decided to go beyond merely trying to block legislation sponsored by others and instead affirmatively advocate for its own proposals. Caps on lawsuits, a statewide water plan, school-board ethics and a transportation sales tax were its first successes.

The panel that oversees Georgia election finance recently confirmed that state laws place no limits on how much corporations can spend campaigning for or against candidates as long as they report what they spend. Interestingly, they aren't required to report that unlimited total poured into their campaigns on ballot questions.

A special-interest group and a law firm that represents utilities had requested the ruling from the State Ethics Commission to test the boundaries on how far they could go.

Reports aren't necessary for corporate spending on ballot questions, like referenda and constitutional amendments, because lawmakers were only concerned with revealing possible conflicts of interest facing officeholders, according to Ethics Commission Executive Secretary Stacey Kalberman.

The next day, a group of Atlanta businesses announced the launch of a two-year, $5 million campaign to pass a controversial ballot question, the sales tax hike for transportation.

Even though Georgia corporations always had the option of pouring unlimited money into independent expenditures, according to last week's commission action, signs point to increased corporate involvement.

First is the fact that anyone even asked what the limits were.

The opinions were requested by the American Federation for Children which advocates for school vouchers and by a law firm that represents utilities. They were sought in response to a January decision by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission in which the nation's highest court overturned Congress' attempt to prohibit corporations' independent expenditures in federal races.

The Ethics Commission voted unanimously, with essentially no discussion, to approve two advisory opinions drafted by the commission's new executive secretary. Attorney General Thurbert Baker had no comments on them either, Kalberman said.

While one of the opinions made clear that regulated utilities have the same right as any other business to make unlimited, independent expenditures on ballot questions, it left unanswered whether utilities can launch independent campaigns for or against someone running for the Public Service Commission that regulates them. It didn't address insurance companies, which are specifically banned like utilities from contributing to the campaigns of candidates for regulators.

Most observers don't expect to see individual companies striking out with their own campaigns for individual candidates or ballot issues. Instead, they predict companies will funnel their money through trade associations or groups formed with innocuous names like People for a Better Georgia.

However, without the requirement to publicly disclose their spending on ballot questions, they could be as bold as they dare and not bother with a blandly named intermediary. Their customers -- and advocates for the winning side -- would never know or be able to seek retribution.

Corporate activity could be significant this fall as voters consider many referenda that will be on the ballot. Issues range from accounting changes at the Department of Transportation that road builders want to alterations on noncompete agreements that high-tech firms are seeking.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. Reach him at (404) 589-8424 or

Web posted on Thursday, July 22, 2010

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