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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Tie Vote Gives Motl His New Campaign Rules

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

  Chalk up another victory for Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, Jonathan Motl.

“I think it's a good day for Montanans and the people in Montana,” Motl said outside a hearing room at the state capitol Tuesday. “I think that this will be a step towards transparency that’s the greatest step we’ve taken as a state.”

Motl yesterday got approval for a new set of campaign-finance rules he drafted. This despite criticism from conservative lawmakers such as Hamilton Republican Representative Nancy Ballance, who read one of the rules that she says are too vague and give Motl too much power.

“‘Whether an expenditure of campaign funds is to be considered a personal use or expense and therefore prohibited is a factual determination to be made by the Commissioner.’ That's pretty open. I would think that those rules should be very very clear.”

Ballance testified before the Legislature’s State Administration and Veterans Affairs Committee, asking them to poll state lawmakers to determine whether the Motl’s rules are consistent with their intent when they passed Montana’s new “dark money” disclosure bill earlier this year. State law allows such polls, but the results are non-binding, useful only as evidence if the rules are challenged in a lawsuit.

The complex rules would discourage civic-minded people from running for office and threaten Montana’s “citizen legislature”, said Bozeman Republican Representative Kerry White.

“Will I run again? I don't know,” White told the committee. "I have to read 53 pages of rules and figure out is it worth the risk?”

But the eight-member committee, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, did not have the votes to keep the rules from going into effect. Democrat Bryce Bennett, a Representative from Missoula, voted to delay the rules a few months ago. He voted this time to let them take effect, because Motl had re-written some unclear sections, and because he says voters need the transparency the new rules help to provide.

“If we’re going to talk about a citizen legislature, these rules and this bill are about empowering citizens and trying to finally address the overwhelming influence of money, and dark money specifically, coming into our state to make sure the citizens were the ones that had the largest voice.” Bennett said.

With Bennett and three other Democrats opposed to any further delay, the vote to hold back the campaign rules tied at four-four, meaning they will be published and go into effect as early as February of next year. Outside the committee room, Representative Nancy Ballance predicted the new rules will have a chilling effect on citizen participation in government.

“And I think representative White called it right. I think we really have fewer and fewer candidates, who are not themselves attorneys, who’re going to be willing to take on this job.” Ballance said.

All 150 Montana legislators will still be polled as to their legislative intent, as Ballance wanted. The poll results will likely be published along the new rules in a few months. For opponents, the only way to stop them from going into effect now is to file a lawsuit. Considering how divisive campaign finance reform is in Montana, that remains a distinct possibility.

An earlier version of this story stated that Bryce Bennett was the only Democrat to vote for delaying the rules.  Representative Kathy Swanson (D-Anaconda) also voted for the delay.  Two other Democrats were absent from the earlier meeting.

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