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Sen. Peterson continues efforts to rein in dark money with ballot initiative

A prominent Republican State Senator is leading efforts to qualify an initiative for the 2014 ballot which would require more disclosure of political spending on state elections. The Stop Dark Money initiative is based upon a bill that failed this last legislative session.

State Sen. Jim Peterson (R-Buffalo) teamed up with Democratic Governor Steve Bullock this last legislature to push for the TRACE Act. The bill tried to force improved disclosure from third-party groups so voters better understand who is behind political speech. It passed a Republican-controlled Senate but was tabled in a committee when it went over to the House—killing it.

“One of the criticisms of the bill is it was too big, too comprehensive and some people thought too confusing,” Peterson said.

The TRACE Act was a big bill—it changed contribution limits and reporting calendars. It was a campaign finance overhaul in a lot of ways. So now Peterson and other supporters are trying to put a simpler version before voters,  version of the bill which just contains parts of the TRACE Act related to disclosure. Peterson said the initiative strengthens reporting and disclosure for everyone who chooses to be involved in the political process. He said anonymous political spending from out of state corporations and special interests is becoming a bigger and bigger player in Montana politics.

“Montana voters want to maintain control of their state politically and they want their decisions to be made locally,” Peterson said, “then there needs to be full disclosure of who’s sending the message and who’s paying for the message.”

The initiative requires disclosure on any spending of $500 dollars or more on specific election-related advocacy.

This includes advertisements or mailings aired or sent within 60 days of an election that refer to a candidate, party or issue before voters. If the advertisement or mailer directly advocates the election or defeat of one of those things—disclosure is required all year.

Peterson said candidates already have to disclose who spends more than $35 dollars on their campaign. He said the initiative would level the playing field for special interests or anyone else taking part in election advocacy efforts.

“It pretty much applies to everybody, nonprofits, for profits, unions, everybody,” he said.

During the Legislature, the TRACE Act was generally opposed by conservative Republicans who argue anonymous political speech has been an important and protected right in the United States since its founding. Sen. Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge) has been tied to anonymous election mailers which have been sent out attacking moderate Republicans like Peterson.

Priest opposed the TRACE Act and believes this initiative has the same constitutional flaws.

“He’s willing to throw free speech and the taxpayers of Montana who are going to have to defend this foolish lawsuit that’s gonna eventually come, he’s throwing those people under the bus,” Priest said, “so he can protect him and his buddies who aren’t voting in the interest of their districts.”

But, initiative organizer Sandy Welch believes the US Supreme Court feels otherwise on the constitutionality of measures like this. She says the court right now is trending toward eliminating campaign spending limits but increasing and upholding disclosure requirements.

“They’re saying that having campaign contribution limits is an infringement on free speech but that disclosure requirements are important in order to let voters know who’s delivering the message and to fight corruption,” she said.

Organizers say they expect bi-partisan support in this effort and count Billings Democratic Senator Robyn Driscoll as one of the first donors.

The measure is in its signature gathering phase right now.

Supporters need to gather signatures from at least five percent of Montana voters in at least 34 of the state’s House districts. Those need to be collected by next June for the initiative to make the November 2014 ballot.

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