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Ills of Citizens United visible in Idaho election

Are corporations people, my friends?

The battle over campaign disclosure in Idaho’s education-reform campaign is the latest skunky fruit of Citizens United. The organizers of a nonprofit corporation that raised and spent some $200,000 on TV ads are refusing to turn over the names of donors. Idaho’s secretary of state, Ben Ysursa, is suing them for violating Idaho’s campaign disclosure law. Such is the depth of the group’s desire not to disclose that they offered to give back the donations rather than reveal the donors. Ysursa, God bless him, said no.

The group, Education Voters of Idaho, is making a constitutional argument: “Social Welfare Organizations, such as EVI, have fundamental Constitutional rights that must be respected by all government agencies, including your office,” the group’s attorney, Christ Troupis, wrote to Ysursa.

“A corporation involved in political action is entitled to no less protection under the First Amendment than an individual exercising the same rights,” the letter continues.

Whether this is certifiably insane, in terms of public policy, is one easily answered question. But the legal strength of the argument is sadly ascendant, particularly since the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions could spend freely in elections. “Social welfare organizations” are spending vast, secret sums on national races. These organizations are supposed to be primarily engaged in broader social welfare goals, with limited political activity, but they are a larger source of cash than super-PACs, which have to disclose their donors.

Idaho voters are being asked to reject or support the education reforms passed by the last Legislature. These include expanding online courses, providing laptops to students, replacing teacher tenure with two-year contracts, and other changes. In this case, the big money is lined up against the reforms, and it comes from predictable sources: teachers unions. The National Education Association has given $1.06 million; the Idaho Education Association has given $280,000.

Ysursa is also asking for the names of donors to those groups, though he hasn’t sued them. But there is a difference between the teachers unions and the Education Voters of Idaho. Everybody knows who the teachers unions represent, where they’re coming from on this issue and why they’re doing so. If you want to go after their motives, you can put together an argument for doing that. Critics have painted them as shadowy, out-of-state groups and alleged that they intimidate and bully those who disagree with them.

This is apparently why parents in Idaho simply cannot safely and publicly disagree with a union view. Unions are terrifying and corporations are people.

The way those $200,000 campaign ads came to be is complicated, but not unusual. Education Voters of Idaho formed as an Idaho nonprofit corporation. Its officers are the same as those for political action committee Parents for Education Reform. Education Voters raised and donated more than $200,000 to Parents for Education Reform; the money went for ads that have already aired.

The leaders of Education Voters clearly feel, and perhaps with some reason, singled out. But the secretary of state, recognizing the rising tide of organizational obfuscation, is doing the right thing to fight it.

In an op-ed piece authored by Debbie Field and John Foster, the group has argued that their organization is trying to level the playing field for parents.

“School administrators have their own organization. Local school boards have a statewide association. Academics have journals and studies. Policy wonks have ‘think tanks.’ The business community has their own education-oriented group. And teachers have a powerful, multi-million dollar union,” Field and Foster wrote.

They added, “We want to put power in the hands of parents and get them involved in how schools are run. We want to make sure all Idaho students have the education they need to be prepared for a bright future. We want students and teachers to have the technology they need to make sure they can learn anytime, anywhere. And we demand that parents have the final say in how our schools are run.”

Me too! But … which parents? How many? All parents? Are these parents people or corporations? Is it possible that in claiming to represent simply “parents” – purely motivated, unanimous parents – against dastardly unions, the picture remains stunningly incomplete? Given the fact that there are millions of dollars to be had by some corporate victor in all this reform, would there be any public value in knowing whether any corporate contenders were included among the parents who demand the final say in how schools are run?

The leaders of this group seem to consider these questions naive. The Constitution establishes rights for corporate citizens – rights that are utterly, absolutely the same as your rights and my rights and the rights of your Aunt Jo – and those of us who object should review state and federal laws.

I hope they’re wrong, legally. But on the easier question – whether it’s good for democracy when people have a right to spend freely from behind a corporate mask – there’s no doubt they are.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.