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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana's Campaign Spending Rules Are Getting A Major Re-Write

Jonathan Motl, Montana Commissioner of Political Practices.
State of Montana

Jonathan Motl is rewriting the rules for politics in Montana. That might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not.  The state's Commissioner of Political Practices has come out with a top-to-bottom rewrite of the rules that candidates, parties, and political committees must follow, partly because of Senate Bill 289, the so-called “dark money” bill passed by the state legislature this year.

Those rules are the subject of two full days of public hearings that start Wednesday morning at the capitol.  I talked with Motl in his office in Helena.

Steve Jess: Why did you decide to basically do a top-to-bottom rewrite of the rules of your office that this time?

Jonathan Motl: We actually had decided to do a top to bottom rewrite even before Senate Bill 289 and the other two Senate Bills that we’re implementing passed, and the reason for that is the last time the rules were visited was 2001. Between 2001 and the current time we had a pretty significant U.S. Supreme Court case called Citizens United, so the rules that we had weren’t appropriate for the campaign practice environment that we’re living in now.

Jess: My understanding of Citizens United as a lay person is that the Supreme Court essentially said that corporations have the free speech rights of people to give as much money as they want in support of a candidate or ballot issue. Is that even close to being accurate?

Motl: Almost except for one word. Its not give as much, but spend as much. So what Citizens United said was that corporations could spend as independent expenditures whatever they wanted on candidates and ballot issues. That of course in another Supreme Court case invalidated Montana's 1912 law prohibiting corporate independent expenditures on candidate elections. The reason the Supreme Court said that that doesn't in our judgement affect elections is because of reporting and disclosure. So now that means that states like Montana, that didn't have corporate speech, must now deal with how do you report and disclose that corporate election speech.

Jess: So let's talk about the rules rewrite -- the subject of this hearing. For someone who is thinking that sometime in their life they might want run for office in Montana, are these rules easy to comprehend. Are they easy to follow or do they, as some some critics have said, complicate things to the point where you just give up and say it's not worth the trouble?

Motl: If you're running for office in Montana these rules are a godsend to you because they make the elections fair.  They promote understanding of who's funding elections and when they’re funding elections. They make the rules clear.  The rules that we have now,  a candidate running for office doesn't really know what your opposing candidate is doing or what all of these newly empowered entities that can speak in your campaign are doing until it's too late, the 12th day pre-election. But now with Senate Bill 289 and these new rules the first reporting period is the 35th day. This makes it fair because a candidate will know if you've got corporate interests spending against you or for you.

Jess: What would you say to someone who's on the fence and who doesn't know if they need to really be involved in this rulemaking. Why should they come to either one of these days and what makes this a good use of the citizen’s time?

Motl: Our elections obviously elect the public officials that make laws for us. But they do more than that. In many ways they define the culture of the state. If somebody feels a social obligation that we have as Montanans, well this is the time when you should let that feeling of obligation of duty come to the top. And you should take a moment during Wednesday and Thursday to listen to this hearing, to watch it on the legislative channel and participate.

The hearings into Motl's proposed new rules are likely to draw objections from some of the same people who opposed the "dark money" bill in the legislature, such as Jeff Laszloffy, President of the Montana Family Foundation. Laszloffy didn’t respond to our request for comment, but he did outline his objections in a recent podcast posted to the web.

"Now don't get me wrong. I think there should be transparency when it comes to election law, but this bill went way beyond that. It muzzled free speech, put churches at risk of  having to disclose their donors, and gave dictatorial powers to the Commissioner of Political Practices," Laszloffy said.

Motl says churches won’t have to disclose their donors, because speech in a church setting is still constitutionally protected.

Laszloffy says Motl’s proposed rules could force private organizations to turn over budgets and correspondence to him, so he can determine whether their primary purpose is political. Laszloffy says even liberal backers of the legislation have started to turn against it:

"At a recent committee hearing, groups like the teachers union, the AFL/CIO and the trial lawyers who remained silent during the original hearings on the bill suddenly came forward with grave concerns."

A spokesperson for the Montana AFL/CIO says Laszloffy does not speak for them. While the union does have concerns about the new political practices rules, it’s not opposed to them.

But similar concerns led a state legislative committee to put the new rules on hold, at least until the committee can review them in  mid-October. That decision does not affect the public hearings that start Wednesday morning at 9:00 in the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the state capitol.

You have a chance to speak out on Montana's proposed campaign rules in two days of public hearings that start Wednesday morning at 9:00 in the Old Supreme Court Chambers in the state capitol.

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