AUGUSTA — A group hoping to reel in the influence of corporate money in politics and overturn a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling brought its message to the State House on Thursday.

The group, We the People Maine, part of a national grassroots movement pushing to amend the U.S. Constitution to ensure that corporations are not granted the same protections to free speech as individuals, is urging state lawmakers to call on Congress to hold a Constitutional Convention.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in 2010 on “Citizens United” affirmed the rights of corporations to spend without limit on political speech but has largely been blamed for unleashing a torrent of so-called “dark money” — nearly untraceable funds used in political campaigns.

Naomi Cohen, a lawyer from Hope and a spokeswoman and organizer for the Maine group, said more than $1 billion of corporate money was poured into U.S. elections between 2010 and 2014. Cohen said a Constitutional Convention is the process the founders of the U.S. government intended to protect the rights of the people when Congress failed to act.

“This is a tool that they knew we would someday need to save our country from corruption,” Cohen said. “And what has happened to our country is corruption —deep, systematic corruption because democracy has gone on sale in America.”

Cohen said the vast bulk of that $1 billion, about 60 percent, came from 195 individuals and their spouses.

“Does anyone really think our forefathers wrote the Bill of Rights so corporations and the ultra-rich would drown out the voices of the people?” Cohen asked during a rally just prior to a public hearing on HP 956, a joint resolution of the Legislature making an application to Congress to call for a Constitutional Convention.

To move forward, 34 states would have to ask Congress to hold the convention and if the convention approved the amendment, voters in 38 states would then have to vote in favor of the change for it to take place.

Cohen said that while the process has never been used, previous efforts to hold so-called “Article V” conventions have prompted Congress to act.

HP 956 is not the first time the Maine Legislature has called on Congress for a Constitutional Convention. In 2013, the Legislature passed a similar resolution, making Maine the 13th state to ask for the change but the request was more of a formal letter and was nonbinding.

On Thursday, the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee heard from scores of supporters of the measure. The group organizing in Maine collected more than 35,000 signatures from Maine voters in 2014.

Beedy Parker, a Camden resident and an organizer for the group, said gathering the signatures was “easier than selling Girl Scout cookies.”

“Corporations and their super-wealthy representatives have taken a page out of dog training,” Rob Eckerman of Harmony told lawmakers. They offer legislation to lawmakers and tell them, “You are a good dog if you pass this legislation as we submit it to you and then you get a bone and that comes in the form of a campaign contribution and if you don’t agree with us you are a bad dog, you don’t get a bone, you don’t get any campaign contributions and you won’t be able to run a viable campaign, so you won’t be elected and next time we’ll bring in a dog that’s better trained.”

Eckerman and others said because Congress had consistently failed to offer its own amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling, it was left to state legislatures to use the tools available to them in the U.S. Constitution.

Urging his colleagues to support the resolution, its sponsor, state Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, said the only way to overturn Citizens United was with an amendment to the Constitution.

But opponents to opening the Constitution to a convention of delegates from the states warned that process itself could be corrupted by money because the process of selecting delegates was not well-defined. Opponents also warned that once a convention was started, delegates could totally reform the federal government, perhaps in ways that would not be what supporters were hoping for.

Joel Johnson, an economist for the Maine Center for Economic Policy, spoke against that measure and two others, one seeking a Constitutional Convention to present amendments for federal term limits and another seeking a balanced federal budget.

“We strongly oppose all three of these bills,” Johnson said. “We feel that all three of these proposals endanger the U.S. Constitution and the stability of the Republic. If Congress called a Constitutional Convention or attempted to do so, our nation would be thrown into turmoil. If you think Congress is dysfunctional and has all sorts of moneyed interests knocking on the door and trying to bend their ear, imagine what the lobbying would be like at this event.”

Johnson said just the attempt to hold the convention, “would be mired in years of legal and political battles that would all have great consequences for our nation’s future.”

But supporters of the bill said opponents were using fear tactics and that the idea that delegates would run amok of their responsibility to stay on topic and focus on precise issues were unfounded.

State Rep. Diane Russell, a co-sponsor of Chapman’s resolution, said both liberals and conservatives were largely in agreement that state legislatures must act because Congress had failed to do so.

Russell said nothing brought that issue home more to her than when the federal government shut down for 16 days in 2013, costing taxpayers $64 billion.

She said opponents who were worried delegates to a convention would go rogue or that it would become a “runaway convention” ought to realize American citizens were already dealing with a “runaway Congress.” 

The committee is expected to vote on Chapman’s bill and the others in a work session set for Monday, June 1.

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