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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Governor Signs Executive Order Targeting Dark Money

Gov. Steve Bullock during a 2016 campaign stop at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Mike Albans
Montana Public Radio
Gov. Bullock during a 2016 campaign stop at UM in Missoula.

Editor's Note: This post was updated at 3:30 p.m., Friday, June 8, 2018. 

Governor Steve Bullock signed an executive order Friday aimed at reforming dark money campaign contributions.

Bullock has built a reputation as a campaign finance reform crusader, first as Montana’s attorney general, and in two campaigns for governor. Today’s executive order comes as he appears to be exploring a possible presidential run.

He announced the new executive order at a speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC earlier this week.

“If voters are feeling disconnected to government, in Montana and all across the country, because government seems to be bought and paid for, the first step in empowering citizens is to let them know clearly and unambiguously who is doing the buying,” Bullock said.

The Center for American Progress, which hosted Bullock, lists 30 anonymous financial supporters on its website, including five which gave at least a million dollars. The organization says corporate donors are not permitted to remain anonymous and corporate donations do not fund research.

In his speech, Bullock likened campaign finance transparency to NASCAR sponsorships branded on driver’s jumpsuits and cars so that everyone can see what companies are underwriting the costs in their race.

“We’re going to make sure that if you want to do business with our state government to profit from tax payer dollars, you got to disclose all or your efforts to influence our state elections,” he said.

Contractors will have to disclose if they’ve made campaign contributions in excess of $2,500 in the last two years to so-called dark money organizations. Those are groups that are not legally required to make their donor lists public.

Any state contractor selling more than $25,000 in services, or $50,000 worth of goods to the state will have to report dark money contributions.

According to the Governor’s office, there are roughly 500-600 state contractors who would fall under the new disclosure requirements. Bullock’s order goes into effect October 1, and does not apply to current state contracts.  

Matthew Monforton, a former Republican state lawmaker and current Bozeman attorney has challenged past state laws supported by Bullock that require more campaign disclosures.

Monforton says the governor’s executive order is a political stunt that repeats requirements already put in place by Montana’s Disclose Act, passed with Bullock’s support in 2015.

“Bullock’s order is largely duplicative of current campaign law, so it really won’t make a lot of difference, other than giving the governor some free publicity for his presidential campaign that  nobody is talking about,” Monforton said.

However, Pete Quist, the Research Director with the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said Montana already has some of the strongest campaign disclosure laws in the country, and Bullock’s new executive order will continue to improve those requirements.

“The disclosure specifically of state contractors' contributions to these groups is especially important because these are organizations that are trying to get contracts with the state or doing business with the state, and so you have the pay to play question,” Quist said.

Quist said money can be passed from a business to a political organization in a shell game that dilutes and hides the original source of the money being spent. He said this unsourced money poses a threat to transparency in the governing process.

"The idea the public can see who is running ads in these campaigns is really important because you can take that into context when you’re interpreting that ad as a voter. And also so you can see any kind of support or attack pressures these companies might be putting on these candidates at the same time as they’re bidding for contracts is valuable,” Quist said.

Governor Bullock’s new executive order goes take disclosure for government contractors one step further than most states, said Austin Graham with The Campaign Legal Center in DC.

Many states to require contractors to disclose donations made to political candidates, parties, or PACS.

“This goes far beyond that, this doesn’t have to be a candidate, party, or PAC,” Graham said.

It can be a contribution to a group that isn’t legally required to disclose its contributors, a dark money group.

However while the governor’s order requires companies to disclose contributions to dark money groups, Graham said it does not apply to individual contributions made by a company’s executive leadership or board members, creating a potential loophole.

Graham said Bullock’s executive order appears similar to one drafted by then-President Barack Obama in 2011, which was never signed because of political opposition.

Graham said dark money can be a divisive issue, and expects opposition to the state’s right to patrol government contractors spending to this level. However he said it’s a meaningful step to shine a light on the money being spent to influence politics even though it does not limit that spending.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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