Help me sleep better at night

At times the business of governing can seem like a zany affair. The theatrics can be wacky, and the cast of characters more like caricatures than level-headed political leaders.

The posturing and gamesmanship can often leave observers with the feeling that what’s taking place in the halls of power isn’t really all that serious.

That perception is folly. Policymakers, for all their pomposity and vainglorious campaigning, wield an awesome sort of power. Even a few subtle lines of code garnering the right number of votes and approvals can have a devastating impact on society.

Case in point, HCR3050 introduced by Rep. Ben Hanson (D-Fargo) and Senator Tyler Axness (D-Fargo). If passed, this constitutional amendment would have made it illegal for any “corporation or other for-profit institution” to “influence the outcome of an election, any legislation or other government policy through the use of aggregate resources or by rewarding or repaying employees or directors to exert such influence.”

The resolution died a quick death in the state House, the more conservative of our two state-level legislative bodies. It was introduced on Feb. 24 and killed on a party line 18-70 vote on March 12. Not a single Democrat rose to speak in favor of the legislation, leading this observer to believe that the intent of the resolution wasn’t so much passage but political vandalism. Something for Democrats to tout to their liberal base during campaign season.

Those nasty Republicans, you see, believe in free speech for corporations. That sort of thing has become a cause celebre for the American left.

But let’s take a closer look at the language of HCR3050 and just how much harm it could have caused had it become law.

For one, notice that it doesn’t just apply to corporations but “any for-profit institution.” We are supposed to think of giant corporations buying influence over elections and the elected, but it isn’t just big business which turns a profit. Imagine a businesswoman who sells handmade crafts over the internet for a profit. Suppose this woman has something to say about internet sales taxes or some proposed regulation of knitting needles.

Would she be able to speak out without running afoul of this language Democrats wanted to put into our state constitution? How does a self-employed person, running a for-profit business, speak out on elections or policy issues without expending the profits of their business?

Here’s another example: What if a beneficent employer gives her employees some paid time off on election day to exercise their to vote? Could she be accused of compensating employees to influence the outcome of an election? Even if the intent was merely to ensure a good turnout, and not any particular outcome, this law would create a foundation upon which a rats nest of accusations could be made.

It’s hard to imagine how publishing companies or even a blogger making a buck off of banner advertising, could publish editorial position on a candidate or a ballot measure without running afoul of this constitutional amendment.

The implications of this amendment are frightening, and there are but two possible set of circumstances for its introduction to the Legislature.

The first, the already mentioned idea that they introduced it merely as a vehicle for generating a political talking point, is not very flattering to the Democrat sponsors of the legislation. They should be taking the legislative process a bit more serious than that.

The second is that they actually believed in this legislation. That they felt it would have made for good policy. A solid addition to our state constitution.

That’s the more troubling of the two options. In fact, it’s downright frightening that anyone elected to a position of power in our state would be willing to endorse this sort of wholesale restriction on free speech.

Let’s hope this amendment was the unserious political maneuvering of a thoroughly marginalized political party and not a serious proposal. It would certainly help me sleep better at night.