PACs Proliferate in Election Year

By Beacon Staff

In an effort to increase the transparency of Montana’s elections, the state office of the commissioner of political practices recently began posting on its Web site the campaign finance reports of both candidates and political action committees, or PACs. Now widely available, these reports shed light on some of the interests that shape Montana’s elections and the makeup of the state Legislature by revealing from which groups candidates received money, and which candidates these PACs choose to support.

The reports themselves contain few surprises, showing that interests like conservation groups and labor unions support Democrats, and businesses and extractive resource industries back Republicans. As a study in contrast, out of the 51 legislative candidates the Montana Contractors’ Association made contributions to, only four were Democrats, while Montana Conservation Voters’ 20 legislative contributions went solely to Democrats, according to the groups’ most recent finance reports.

But any time the state can make campaign information more widely available to the public, Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth said, the healthier Montana’s political process becomes. Previously, such information was available only in Helena or at some county election departments.

“If there’s one thing that the program is intended to do, it’s to provide disclosure of what’s being spent and what’s being raised for political purposes,” Unsworth said. “It really eases the access to information.”

PACs are basically groups that raise and spend money for a particular issue or candidate, and form because the financial rules governing PACs are less restrictive than for candidates.

In Montana, an individual or a PAC can give no more than $160 per election to candidates for the state House or Senate – sums that allow a candidate to do little beyond printing some posters or silk-screening a few T-shirts. Candidates for governor may receive up to $630 from an individual donor or PAC, while candidates for lesser statewide races can receive no more than $310 per election – relatively modest amounts for a statewide campaign.

“Montana’s contribution limits are among the lowest in the country,” Unsworth said.

But PACs are also capable of influencing elections in ways other than giving money directly to a particular candidate: by using mailings, advertisements or other political tools, sometimes without the approval or knowledge of candidates in a given race – what are reflected on finance reports as “independent expenditures.” And PACs are free to devote much larger amounts of cash to such endeavors. The difficulty of tracing the origins of certain PACs’ funding contributes to the negative attention these groups often draw – particularly when out-of-state interests weigh in heavily on Montana issues.

PACs typically coalesce around a particular ballot initiative, Unsworth said, but what is different about this year are the high number of PACs that sprung up around the June primary elections in the Bozeman area. Many of these PACs listed as treasurers people who were impossible to reach, Unsworth said, and received thousands of dollars in donations from national PACs (which are governed by the Federal Election Commission under a different set of rules than Montana PACs.)

“It strikes me as a little unusual that we have these groups formed at the last minute, somewhat mysteriously,” Unsworth added.

While the presence of any so-called “mysterious” PACs was absent from legislative primaries in the Flathead, most, but not all local candidates, received PAC contributions.

Republican candidates – in addition to their individual donors and funds from the state GOP – received contributions almost entirely from PACs representing extractive resource industries and business interests, while many Democrats received contributions from the PACs of Montana Conservation Voters and Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’s Glacier PAC, along with individual donors.

According to campaign finance reports filed June 23, nearly every Republican candidate in Flathead County received money from at least one, and often several PACs representing interests including the Plum Creek Timber Company, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), the Montana Coal Council, the Montana Wood Products Association, and the Montana Contractors’ Association. The exception among Republicans was Scott Reichner, candidate for House District 9 in Bigfork, who did not list any PACs among the donors on his most recent campaign finance report.

The heads of the timber, contractors and coal groups whose PACs contributed to Republicans said they select which candidates to support in a straightforward way: by examining incumbents’ voting records and new candidates’ positions on issues related to taxes, environmental protections and other factors affecting business growth in the state. When the interests of these groups complement each other, the multiple PACs giving to one candidate from various causes can deliver a fundraising advantage.

In addition to candidates and independent expenditures, many PACs also give to other PACs that support a common candidate, thus allowing for an even greater influence on some races.

“In order for our industry to be healthy, other industries have to be healthy,” said Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association. “We want to see oil and gas development, transmission lines, rail lines – our members will benefit from that kind of industrial activity.”

Many Flathead Democratic candidates received contributions from Baucus’s Glacier PAC, including H.D. 3 candidate Mick Holm, H.D. 6 candidate James Scott Wheeler, H.D. 7 candidate Shannon Hanson, H.D. 8 candidate Cheryl Steenson, H.D. 10 candidate Carla Augustad, and S.D. 3 candidate Mark Holston. Montana Conservation Voters doled out a contribution to Holm as well.

Montana Conservation Voters is comprised of several chapters in different areas of the state, whose board members interview candidates to determine whether to offer a contribution and endorsement. While the group’s procedure for making PAC contributions can be “clunky,” it’s also in keeping with the MCV’s grassroots organization, Sarah Cobler, MCV’s program director, said.

“It’s a hard, long road,” Cobler added. “I know $160 isn’t a lot, but whatever we can do to help is good.”

While her group usually supports candidates with views contradictory to the MCV, Ellen Engstedt-Simpson, executive vice president of the Wood Products Association, agreed.

“What do you expect to get for $160? Not much,” Engstedt-Simpson said. “We’re just showing an individual that we’re supportive of his or her candidacy because of his or her particular stance on our issues, and that’s all.”