“If you don’t like the rules, change them.” That was the empowering advice I was given many years ago by my friend and lifelong mentor Robert A.G. Monks.

Monks has spent decades trying to change the rules when it comes to how major corporations are governed and behave. His consistent theme has been that the self-dealing in America’s boardrooms has left the interests of the community and the shareholders far down the priority list.

Monks believes corporations are not sufficiently accountable for their actions and now have more political power than is reasonable for the good of society.

Most companies behave responsibly. They usually are small enterprises like the thousands of family-owned businesses in Maine that are the heart of our economy. Their interests are in making a living and building value. They are good community citizens.

Monks’ focus is on the behemoths like Exxon and Sears with whom he jousts in an international arena; giant corporations that have built protectionist rules into the system to thwart calls for accountability from the shareholders such as small 401(k) investors and pension funds.

For example, the rules (a product of public policy) allow big payouts for senior corporate executives. These golden packages are authorized by their own handpicked board members, often without commensurate performance requirements.

In 1978, U.S. CEOs in major companies earned 35 times more than an average worker, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But by 2005 the average CEO earned 262 times that of an average worker.

What do corporate rules and behavior have to do with Maine? Read on.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court decided by a vote of 5-4 that corporations may participate in federal elections for Congress and president. The president and members of Congress make the rules that govern corporations. Connect the dots and you see the picture.

Prior to the ruling in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission, corporations and unions were barred from contributing directly to federal elections. The law was meant to ensure the citizen’s voice was not drowned out by big special interests during the election process. That all changed with the court’s split decision.

Now, a corporation and possibly unions may flood the airwaves and fill our mailboxes to influence the outcome of federal elections. No one knows if that will actually happen, but many are feeling a loss of balance.

As with virtually all Supreme Court decisions, this issue had to work its way through the lower courts before reaching the nation’s highest court. A challenge to the ruling will have to run the same gantlet.

Monks hopes to challenge the idea that an entity that exists only on paper has the same political rights as a flesh-and-blood human being. He wants to enact a law in Maine that would serve as a test case in the hope that it will reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Essentially, he wants to declare that, going forward, new corporations chartered under Maine state law would have no political rights of speech. His proposal, however, would not apply to partnerships, “S” corporations or existing “C” corporations, just new “C” corporations — the perfect conditions for a test case.

Why in Maine? It’s an easy state in which to experiment.

For example, Libby Mitchell attempted to make Maine the first state in the country to require employers to provide paid sick leave, a proposal considered by many to be nothing less than a job-killer bill and a substitute for what should normally be a labor negotiation.

contrast, Monks in no way wants to threaten the state’s economy, which is why his proposal would affect only new corporations being formed in Maine.

If successful, Monks’ proposal simply turns back the clock to the way it was a year ago when corporations and unions were prohibited from overwhelming the federal campaign process.

Supporters of the ruling believe it has simply leveled the playing field for American business and affirmed the concept of free enterprise and free speech.

This is an important issue and deserves a public policy debate.

Corporations are not evil but they are not all principled either when it comes to politics. Just consider the corporate and union money that now goes to the political party in power, parties that finance campaigns to elect lawmakers who make the rules. Again, connect the dots. See the picture.

So, will unlimited amounts of corporate and union money enhance or diminish freedom? Will it promote or undermine the common good? Should a corporation or union have the same rights as an individual? If they can’t cast a ballot, does free speech apply? Remember, the rules and rulemakers are determined by the people we elect. Your vote matters.

What do you think and what are you willing to do about it?

Tony Payne is a lifelong Maine resident active in business, civic and political affairs. He can be reached at:

[email protected]