Montana Earns ‘F’ for Campaign Disclosure; Improvements Expected

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – Montana again received the lowest grade in a survey on access to campaign disclosure information, but officials expect that will soon change as the state unveils a new Internet service.

A study released Wednesday found Montana ranked 47th in the nation for campaign disclosure, earning the state an “F.” Montana is one of only two states that does not offer any online access to campaign data, such as donations made to candidates, the California Voter Foundation said.

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth said he welcomed the study as he works toward a new searchable database expected to debut on the Internet in early 2008.

“I think this group in California does a good service. It’s helpful for us, it reinforces where we ought to put our attention,” Unsworth said.

The group noted Montana has a strong disclosure requirement law. But the state got dinged because the only way to review candidate donations is to go through paper files at the political practices office in Helena.

Since many of the fillings are lengthy, it can be difficult to a do a meaningful assessment of donations and expenditures.

The group gave Montana kudos for the ongoing effort to put the information in a searchable and downloadable Web site.

“Fortunately, the state is getting close to addressing this issue,” the group wrote. “At present, the commissioner’s office oversees an excellent program for making copies of paper-filed campaign reports accessible to the public.”

Unsworth said a $170,000 appropriation from the Legislature earlier this year is speeding work to complete the database.

Under the system, candidates will be able to file their donations and expenditures over the Internet. That information will become available to the public after the filing deadlines.

It will allow the public — and the political opposition — to search for donors and download the database to perform their own types of searches. It will also allow groups that track and study campaign donations to perform their own analysis, Unsworth said.

“That will give us a much better grade, I expect,” the commissioner said.

Since candidates will not be required to file electronically, the office said it will enter information into the database from candidates who continue to file paper disclosures. That information could be delayed by weeks, depending on the size of the disclosures. For instance, a recent filing by Gov. Brian Schweitzer was more than 300 pages long and included thousands of individual contributions.

The effort to put the information on the Internet in Montana goes back to 2003, and spans three political practices commissioners.

“We are getting much closer and we are moving in the right direction,” said Unsworth, who took office last year. “I think people will legitimately expect that we will get it done this time.”

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