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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Disclose Montana' Act Would Shine Light On Dark Money In Campaigns

Campaign funds graphic
Campaign funds graphic

Montana’s governor has made good on a promise contained in last week’s State of the State Address, introducing a package of four bills designed to increase transparency in campaign financing. The centerpiece of the package is called the Disclose Montana Act, and it broadens the range of groups that must disclose their election-related finances.

“First, the act requires spending disclosure for any electioneering communication made within sixty days of when voting begins. By using the term electioneering communication instead of express advocacy, which we now have, the focus is now on the group’s activities, eliminating their ability to say what they do is “issue advocacy” and they therefore can’t be regulated as a political group,” said Bullock.

Republican leaders who sat in on the Governor’s news conference were quick to charge that Bullock is talking out of both sides of his mouth by condemning “issue advocacy” groups at the same time he’s  serving as the chair of the Democratic Governors’ Association, which raises funds for Democratic candidates. Bullock brushed off any conflict of interest.

“As chair of the organization the DGA won’t be spending any dark money to influence elections while I’m chair. I’m hoping that the Republicans will be asking the RGA to do the same thing.”

And to back his claim that this is not a partisan issue, Bullock enlisted Republican Senator Duane Ankney of Colstrip, who faced a barrage of attack ads in the last election.

“This isn’t a Republican and this ain’t a Democrat issue. It’s both our issues. We both have problems both inside and outside our parties.”

Ankney is sponsoring Bullock’s Disclose Montana Act, to regulate electioneering communications.  Bullock is also backing three more bills. One would let the secretary of state dissolve corporations that violate campaign finance laws. The second would force state contractors to comply with campaign regulations, and the third would make companies or unions prove that their directors have approved their political activities. But the keystone of the effort is requiring campaign reporting that is both detailed and timely.

“Currently most political committees don’t report on the election activities until well past the election, Bullock said, "not affording the voters or anyone else the opportunity to find out who actually is funding behind the curtain. Earlier and more frequent reporting requirements will provide voters with a clearer picture of who’s exactly trying to influence our elections and in what amount."

Getting help from members of the Republican majority is key to Bullock’s strategy. The Governor’s office provided a list of eight campaign finance bills that have already died in committee this year, and most of them were brought by Democrats. But Jeff Essmann, the chair of the House State Administration Committee, says the bills that his Committee killed were flawed in one way or another. For example, a bill to add two more reporting deadlines for candidates and committees was just not workable.

“We’re amateurs," said Rep. Jeff Essmann, "these campaigns are small, our campaign treasurers are typically, you know, a wife or a neighbor, and this just added another layer of complexity and burden. These are not million dollar senate races."

Essmann insists the fact that his committee has killed five campaign reform bills in less than five weeks is not proof of Republican resistance to reform.

“Bring a workable bill that’s well thought out and it’ll get a good hearing," Essmann claimed."The question is a lot of these bills are great headlines but they have troubles when you get into the details and that’s what we’re here to do."

Bullock’s Disclose Montana Act is expected to be introduced next week. The other three reform bills arrived in the Legislature this week.

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