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Larsen: When corporations speak, voters eat Jell-O

Published September 14, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you are like me, you pay casual attention to the freak show of national politics. The gaffes, the broken promises, the favors to campaign donors tucked into obscure corners of legislation. Occasionally you write letters to your congressperson. And you vote. Mostly for the losers.

As for the winners, you know that our so-called "representatives" spend most of their time chasing dollars, not crafting solutions.

You know that wealthy individuals and corporate lobbyists regularly buy access to politicians in order to warp the tax and regulatory framework in their favor, toward more wealth concentration, more economic bubbles and more bailouts (because you, the taxpayer, will pick up the pieces).

If you are like me, however, you also believe in our collective power to bring about change. And last spring, more than 11,000 Utahans sharing this belief signed a petition to place an initiative on the Salt Lake City ballot declaring "Only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with constitutional rights," and "Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech."

As part of the national Move to Amend campaign, the goal was to declare support for a new constitutional amendment that returns the political process to where it belongs: the voters. The amendment would reverse shortsighted Supreme Court rulings — such as the recent Citizens United decision — that puts our democratic institutions on the auction block (to the tune of $6 billion last election cycle).

So last November, when more than 150 U.S. cities passed Move to Amend resolutions by wide margins, you would have thought that Salt Lake City stood proudly among them. We were not so fortunate.

After successfully meeting the signature threshold to get on the ballot, we were told, Oops, sorry, state law actually doesn't allow citizens to make "non-binding initiatives." That's technical jargon for making an official statement — often called a resolution — and something that the Legislature and city council do all the time.

Like those that declared Utah's state gun, or Utah's state snack, resolutions don't force anyone to own a .45 caliber pistol or to buy Jell-O. They're just a way of speaking through the democratic process. And that's just what 11,000 Utahans wanted: to have a voice. Only on a slightly more substantial topic, like the future of our republic.

After taking our case to trial, the Utah Supreme Court seemed to agree: Powerful institutions like corporations must not be denied their constitutional right to "free speech," regardless of the corrupting influence it has on elected officials. But you little people asserting that same right at the ballot box is quite intolerable. Go home and eat some Jell-O.

We felt more like shooting our state guns.

However, we were determined to make our voices heard. We began working with the Salt Lake City Council to create a new alternative to the non-binding initiative process. It's called the city opinion question.

It's not a typical ballot, and it can't be voted on at the ballot box in November like everything else. Instead, this pioneering democratic tool has been mailed out to each registered city voter, to be returned by Sept. 26.

This is your chance to insist that real human beings — not "artificial persons" like corporations — are endowed with inalienable rights, among them the freedom of speech. We either use it, or we loose it. Look for the ballot in your mailbox, vote YES for City Opinion Question #1, and speak out for a political system that puts people first!

Giles Larsen is coordinator, City Opinion Question Campaign, Move to Amend Salt Lake.