A grassroots effort to let La Crosse residents weigh in on campaign finance took a step forward Tuesday as a city committee approved La Crosse United to Amend’s request for a referendum question on the April ballot.

The La Crosse Judiciary and Administrative Committee voted unanimously to approve the request for an advisory referendum after the group gathered 3,600 signatures on a petition. The committee also confirmed the Plan Commission’s denial of request to allow a convenience store at 16th and Jackson streets and approved a resolution to create nonpartisan procedures for redistricting.

La Crosse United to Amend is a local branch of a statewide nonpartisan organization dedicated to overturning the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision by U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that corporations can spend an unlimited amount of money to support a politician or party, provided that money isn’t given directly to the politician or party. The court argued that capping that spending would muzzle the free speech rights of corporations.

Pam Knudtson of La Crosse United to Amend allowed that the effort was complex, but said the group, composed of about 60 members, has been working hard since September to simplify it.

“This decision allows large organizations to give unlimited amounts of money to elected officials with very little disclosure and has drastically altered the course of governance,” Knudtson said. “As a result, our voices as individuals have been greatly diminished and Citizens United has negated the intent of our founding fathers to form a government of the people, by the people.”

The group hopes to amend the U.S. Constitution to clarify that corporations are not entitled to the same rights as people and to limit the amount they can spend on behalf of political candidates and parties.

Wisconsin statute gives people the right to submit a petition for direct legislation, according to city clerk Teri Lehrke. The city clerk verified 3,600 signatures and certified the petition.

“Under the law, you only have two choices. You may either adopt the resolution without alteration or submit it to voters at the April election,” Lehrke said.

The advisory referendum would let La Crosse voters weigh in on whether to call for a constitutional amendment declaring that only human beings are endowed with constitutional rights, not corporations, unions, nonprofits or other artificial entities; and money is not speech and regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.

“A referendum is called for because we are committed to educating as many people as much as possible on this subject,” Knudtson said.

A second member of the group, Jan Gallagher, added, “Even though this looks like a federal issue, that is an amendment to the Constitution, it really is a grassroots issue that trickles down to all of us.

“I hope that we can do something at the grassroots level that can begin to effect a change.”

Council member Patrick Brever thanked the group for bringing the issue forward.

“As a student of political science at UW-L, I’d like to say I’m deeply impressed by the petitioners in this process and I would greatly support their efforts to move forward,” Brever said.

Convenience store

The committee denied a request to amend the restrictive covenant on 1601 Jackson St. to allow for a convenience store in the building which currently houses the Elite Repeat, following the recommendation the Plan Commission made Monday.

The Plan Commission denied the request due to a lack of clear plans and a lack of parking at the intersection. City planner Jason Gilman estimated that city ordinance would require nine off-street parking stalls.

“You could probably pack them in there, but that’s not going to meet our code requirements because we have to have safe access for everybody to get in and out,” Gilman said.

Redistricting

The committee also voted 4-3 to approve a resolution calling for the Wisconsin Legislature to create a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of legislative and congressional redistricting plans.

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La Crosse city government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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