Getting corporate money out of politics is no easy task.
Just ask the grass-roots organization Move to Amend Salt Lake City, which filed an extraordinary writ with the Utah Supreme Court last week seeking broadened access to the ballot box via a citizen initiative.
The group is part of a national movement to undo what it sees as harm to the U.S. political system caused by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That opinion opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate and union spending on federal and state political campaigns.
Move to Amend's Utah court filing came after an uneasy dance with Salt Lake City earlier this month in which the group's petition for a ballot measure was seen as virtuous but outside state law. The City Council was so fond of the petition that it considered changing a city ordinance to get it on the ballot.
Across the country, Move to Amend is working in some 90 cities to persuade states and Congress to ratify a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
In Salt Lake City, Move to Amend gathered 7,141 signatures to get its initiative on the municipal ballot. But City Attorney Ed Rutan advised the council that, under Utah law, such a petition must constitute legislation that would produce law before it could be put before voters.
But Move to Amend's petition doesn't do that; it seeks only ask voters to endorse or reject these statements:
1) Only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with constitutional rights.
2) Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.
Council Chairman Soren Simonsen said Wednesday his colleagues remain supportive of the drive to get an initiative before voters. And council members appeared willing to change city law to allow it.
But, Simonsen explained, Salt Lake County would not go along with it.
County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said she could not put the measure on the fall ballot based upon advice from the district attorney. "This just doesn't meet the requirements of Utah law," she said.
Salt Lake City could hold its own special election, but such an endeavor this year would be too expensive, Simonsen said. It's possible the city could afford to do it next year, when it holds its regular election for several council seats.
But Move to Amend spokesman Jesse Fruhwirth said Wednesday the organization is not willing to wait.
"We want this on the ballot in November," he said, noting that political spending this year is eclipsing records from coast to coast.
Beyond that, Move to Amend wants the state's high court to rule that the Utah Legislature has made grass-roots initiatives too difficult to get before voters.
"The citizens' right to democracy is right there in the Constitution," Simonsen said. "The Utah Legislature, with a thousand cuts, has done everything in its power to kill that right."