We were disappointed to learn this week that a Missouri trial judge issued a final decision and permanent injunction preventing St. Louis residents from voting on the “ Take Back St. Louis ” initiative. The initiative would amend the city charter to prohibit tax breaks for fossil fuel companies and their major business partners. After the judge had issued a temporary order in February blocking the vote, in part based on the theory that the initiative violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, Free Speech For People joined the legal team representing the initiative committee and offered evidence at the March 31, 2014 trial in support of the initiative. We argued that the Equal Protection Clause wasn’t intended to prevent voters from deciding how the city should award tax breaks.
The judge disagreed, and cited Citizens United for the proposition that “business organizations are ‘persons’ entitled to equal protection as well as other constitutional rights.” The judge described fossil fuel companies as a “disfavored group” and quoted eloquent language from Romer v. Evans, a Supreme Court decision striking down a law that discriminated against gays and lesbians. Finally, the court chided that “like it or not, [the Constitution] protects fossil fuel producers” and that the initiative would deny equal protection of the laws. (Oddly enough, after saying all that, the court didn’t actually strike down the law under the Equal Protection Clause. Instead, the court ruled that the initiative would also violate Missouri tax financing law, and that’s enough to keep it off the ballot.)
Our friends at Take Back St. Louis have released a statement , and stay tuned for where the case goes next.
Take Back St. Louis
But there’s more. While the case was pending, the St. Louis mayor’s office pushed a curious amendment to an obscure state bill. In the middle of a bill about county prosecutors and sewer districts is the deceptively bland provision “No city not within a county shall by ballot measure impose any restriction on any public financial incentive authorized by statute for a business with a NAICS code of 212111.” St. Louis is the only “city not within a county” in Missouri, and NAICS code 212111 means “coal mining,” so this anti-democratic bill (passed by both houses and awaiting the governor’s signature) explicitly takes away from St. Louis voters the authority to pass a ballot measure restricting tax breaks for coal mining companies (there are two in St. Louis, but the measure is clearly aimed to protect Peabody Energy, which receives city tax breaks ).
The pattern is clear. In court, the claim is that coal companies’ constitutional rights are violated by a citizen initiative to stem the flow of special tax breaks for the coal industry. In the state legislature—where Peabody donors spent almost half a million dollars in the last two elections —the legislators slip in a special provision preventing St. Louis voters from taking a vote on whether to give tax breaks to Peabody.
When the initiative qualified for the ballot, it raised the prospect that, as local news station KSDK put it , “People who live in St. Louis could soon have a say on who gets tax breaks from the city.” That prospect, unremarkable yet revolutionary, is under attack both from a court enmeshed in Citizens United’s theory of corporate constitutional rights and from a captured legislature that has actually passed a law preventing citizens from passing a law.
To limit the influence of money in politics, we need the Political Equality Amendment . And to make clear that constitutional rights belong to people, not corporations, we need the People’s Rights Amendment .
– Ron Fein, Free Speech For People Legal Director