Montana’s proposed rules for political campaigns need rewriting. That was the opinion of several public interest groups that testified during two days of public hearings Wednesday and Thursday at the state capitol. The rules proposed by Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, define when a public interest group qualifies as a "political committee".
Nikki Zupanic with the Montana American Civil Liberties Union said they’re are too vague. Groups like hers might accidentally cross the line into the political realm:
"The rules as written leave open the door that entities like ours will be forced to disclose a donor's contribution when that donor had no intention that the gift be used for political purposes. It's impractical and it's unfair."
The ACLU and the National Rifle Association might not agree on much, but they found common ground on this subject. The NRA submitted written comments saying the rules gave Motl and his staff too much latitude to interpret the state’s campaign laws. Motl’s chief counsel, Jaime MacNaughton, read the letter:
"The Commissioner is an unelected official. In addition to contributing to the uncertainty over what a provision means, this may lead to uneven interpretations or applications of the law."
The Montana AFL-CIO holds a similar view. Co-director Chris Cavazos says his union supported the “dark money” bill that passed out of this year’s legislature, but thinks Motl’s rules implementing the law are vague. He says they don’t draw a clear dividing line between political committees, whose purpose is to influence election results, and incidental committees - groups that dabble in politics, but whose primary purpose is something else, like promoting conservation or gun rights. Cavazos says Motl or some future commissioner could use the rules to play favorites:
"Having such similar and broad definitions will certainly lead to uneven application from commissioner to commissioner, with the possibility of a commissioner designating a committee that they considered favorable at a lower disclosure threshold then they might deserve."
The “Coordination” rules also came under fire. Political groups that “coordinate” with parties or candidates can lose their independent status, bringing them under tighter scrutiny.
Al Smith, executive director of the Montana Trial Lawyers, said the rules as written make it too easy for a group to cross that lines as well.
"Just because we have a donor who might have some contact with a candidate under new Rule 7, the committee could get dinged for coordination for that. We don't think that would stand constitutional muster and we don't think that was the intention.”
Not all the comments were negative. Several state lawmakers, including Republican Senators Ed Buttrey and Bruce Tutvedt, and Democratic Representative Mary Ann Dunwell, praised Motl’s work.
Motl himself is not unhappy that the hearings drew very few people to testify, just 25 witnesses over fourteen hours. His next step is to appear before the State Administration and Veterans Affairs Committee, or SAVA, comprised of eight state lawmakers who will decide whether the rules go into effect or not:
"We will say to SAVA: we gave opportunity for anybody who wished to comment on, object to, ask for clarification on these proposed rules during this hearing process. We will have responded to those in writing and I believe that fulfills our function," Motl said.
Steve Jess: How do you feel about the fact that you didn't get more people to show up?
Jonathan Motl: I don't think that was ever what we were looking at. I certainly did want any Montanan who wanted to come in and have an opportunity to speak. But the real issue was did we give an opportunity and that we did. So in that way I am completely satisfied with these hearings.
The SAVA Committee managed to throw a monkey wrench into the works just as the two days of hearings were drawing to a close. The Committee pushed back its next meeting, when it will consider the new campaign rules, from October 14 to November 17. The announcement gave no reason for delaying the vote by more than a month.