Clean Up the Money Sewer

By Beacon Staff

Earlier this month, federal judge Charles Lowell issued a declaration blowing out Montana’s campaign-finance limits. In the six days between his ruling and a Ninth Circuit Court stay, the Montana Republican Party threw a half-million dollars at Rick Hill’s gubernatorial campaign and another 30 grand to Tim Fox, the Republican attorney general candidate.

Democrats, of course, are screaming for Hill and Fox to return the loot.

Frankly, I don’t see the difference. The money will be spent one way or the other, on ads flogging Democrats and praising Republicans. It seems Democrats are just mad a fat check for them didn’t slip through.

Furthermore, as my dear friend Mike Jopek laid it out for you last week: “With such huge amounts of secret money spent on elections, someone has one big agenda for the next Congress,” money isn’t the problem.

It’s the secret – where and how money is spent, contributed by whom, for what agenda?

Don’t think so? Just imagine how things would work with no money in politics:

If there are no ads, no money for campaign rallies, where would we voters get our information? From the “news,” filtered and dribbled from reporters who decide which sound bite to write down, and which to ignore, and editors who do the same. And as I wrote last time, 60 percent of us don’t trust our news providers – and I bet the proportion of politicians who trust reporters is even lower.

Politicians don’t want to be utterly beholden to the press for voter outreach. They want money to run their own campaigns, thanks. So, while federal campaign finance got really serious after Nixon’s slush funds and Watergate, the “reforms” served mainly to extract political advantage for the faction in power. The results were utter junk. The dirty money squeezed out in one place just squirted out through another loophole.

The last major election-finance law passed was the “bipartisan” McCain-Feingold, which forced everyone but the candidates to shut up for 60 days before an election. In effect, this “bipartisan” law was an incumbent-protection law for both parties.

Yeah, THAT’s what we needed. As a bonus, with outside players cut off, who could still talk about politics? Yep, those same journalists 60 percent of us don’t trust.

Since the money can’t go away, what’s the answer? Make it hurt to keep the “secret” in political secret money.

I think Judge Lowell’s ruling gives Montana a huge opportunity to fix the biggest flaw in our democratic system, the nasty, dishonest way we support our candidates.

It’s time Montana passes campaign finance reform that does the following:

Set contribution limits high, but require full, effective disclosure in real time, with painful enforcement of disclosure requirements.

No political advertisement that mentions any candidate or incumbent currently up for either primary or general election, can be run in Montana media without the purchaser being duly registered with Montana’s Political Practices office.

Registered advertisers would have to post their contributions and expenditures within close of next business day, including a running total of cash on hand. Donor lists would have to be organized by last name. Right now, many campaigns are shamefully sending their reports to Political Practices organized by donor FIRST names. Why the heck? So it’s hard to figure out Ann is Walter’s husband …

News outlets could still take outside secret ad buys, but each advertisement would have to be accompanied by a disclaimer stating the ad was from an unregistered, undisclosed entity taking either time or column space the buyer would have to pay for.

There are other details, like huge fines, but in the end, such reform would not be that difficult for Montana to implement. We don’t have the huge, calcified bureaucracies of other states. We’re a small, lightweight state with small, lightweight media outlets. We still have a personal relationship with most of our politicians.

But right now, we’re connected to the same sewer of toxic secret money as everyone else, and I’m sick of drowning in it.

Maybe if we try pouring transparent money in the top of the political pipeline, what comes out the bottom won’t be so darn poisonous.

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