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Corporations from Walmart, to Aflac, to Duke Energy were among the largest contributors to candidates in states during 2016, according to a new analysis of data by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). Following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the floodgates to big corporate money opened allowing unlimited funds to flow directly from corporate treasuries for political purposes. But the influx of corporate money in elections threatens to push regular voters to the sidelines while candidates court big dollar donations.
“2016 is projected to be the most expensive election in U.S. history,” said Andre Delattre, Executive Director of U.S. PIRG. “The flood of corporate money into our elections and the quick move to deregulate some of the largest special interests in our country like wall street and big pharma sends a clear signal to voters: your voices don’t matter, and money talks.”
Through an analysis of publicly available information from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, U.S. PIRG determined the for-profit entity that contributed the largest sum of money to candidates for all levels of office in each state. Among the findings: energy companies are some of the biggest contributors and many top donors are also big tax avoiders.
By supporting candidates, corporations stand a better chance of preserving or passing policies they support even when that policy is not in the public’s interest. With energy companies, one example is Duke Energy's opposition to third party solar, which remains illegal in North Carolina (where Duke Energy was the largest corporate donor) despite bipartisan support for third party sales. On tax avoidance, take for instance Nike (the largest corporate donor in Oregon), which pays a mere 1.4 percent tax rate to foreign governments on the more than $10 billion in assets it has stashed offshore.
"The biggest corporate tax avoiders are also often the most prolific corporate campaign donors," said Michelle Surka, Tax and Budget Advocate with U.S. PIRG. "The fact is, corporate tax loopholes didn't write themselves into law, and they don't stay on the books because ordinary Americans think tax gimmicks are a great idea. Tax loopholes benefit the few most powerful corporations, and this analysis shows exactly how that system is perpetuated."
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Channeled through outside groups, contributions from corporations can remain anonymous, leaving voters (and sometimes even shareholders) in the dark.
Take for example Disney, the largest contributor to candidates in Florida last year. Just this past week, shareholders brought forth a resolution calling for greater transparency in political spending during their annual meeting in Denver. The resolution was specifically focused on lobbying expenditures rather than contributions to candidates, which is particularly hard to track, especially at the state level. But corporate money – whether in lobbying or contributions to candidates – is increasingly being recognized by people across the political spectrum as a warping influence in a democracy that should represent ‘we the people.’
There are proposals that would help stem the tide of big money in politics. The Democracy for All Amendment (H.J.Res.31/S.J.Res.8) would amend the constitution to overturn Citizens United, making it clear that corporations are not people, and giving lawmakers an opportunity to reign in corporate political spending. At the same time, the Government by the People Act (H.R.20) would empower small donors by providing a 6-to-1 match for small donations, so long as candidates agree to forgo big money contributions.
“It’s long past time for us to limit the influence of big, corporate money in politics,” said Delattre. “The voices of everyday Americans are what politicians should hear, not just the views of big donors. It’s time that Congress and the courts recognize that fact.”
U.S. PIRG, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.
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