Montana GOP Split on Bills to Shed Light on ‘Dark Money’

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A Republican lawmaker said Monday that more campaign disclosure is needed to rein in so-called “dark money” flooding elections – the latest in an effort that so far has been met with mixed results this session.

Rep. Rob Cook of Conrad pitched two measures Monday to the House State Administration Committee.

House Bill 254 would require a disclaimer on election materials funded by money from anonymous sources. House Bill 255 would require such groups to disclose how the money was spent. No immediate action was taken.

Cook said his bill targets groups like American Tradition Partnership.

ATP gained notoriety by successfully challenging the state’s century-old ban on some corporate politicking, and by fighting the efforts of the commissioner of political practices to force it to disclose donors and expenditures.

A state judge ruled last month that ATP violated Montana’s state campaign-finance and election laws, and is expected to issue penalties in that case. ATP had claimed tax-exempt status as a nonprofit social welfare organization that does not advocate for specific candidates.

ATP created enemies on both sides of the aisle by first hammering republicans it considered too moderate with oversized attacks in primary elections, and then by turning their focus to Democrats in the general election. A fake newspaper distributed by the group included a photo of Gov. Steve Bullock, then a candidate, in a lineup of sex offenders.

Cook said more disclosure is needed so voters know who is behind the messages.

“I guess its old school, but I think if you can’t put your name on it, you shouldn’t say it,” Cook told the House State Administration Committee on Monday.

Cook said his other bill would force such groups to tell donors which candidates or issues it supported and opposed, and how much was spent in each effort.

The anti-abortion group Montana Right to Life opposed the disclaimer proposal, arguing it would create lengthy advertisements and perhaps violate constitutional free speech protections. A group that represents some associations that could have to report activity to donors argued the additional requirement was unnecessary and burdensome.

A split on the issue is becoming apparent on the Republican side of the aisle.

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock called for more disclosure of dark money last week in his State of the State speech, although he has yet to put forth a specific proposal. The request brought scowls from Republican legislative leaders— and cheers from some rank-and-file Republicans upset with the tactics of a conservative group behind attack ads.

On Friday a Democratic-led effort to ensure all groups influencing elections to disclose donors was tabled by a Republican-led Senate committee. That measure, Senate Bill 124, would expand the definition of groups forced to disclose political activities in an effort to effort to ensure those organized like ATP are included.

State Sen. Kendall Van Dyk called ATP a “criminal enterprise” that will take advantage of rules it believes can be challenged.

“We shouldn’t be beholden to these shadowy outfits,” Van Dyk said. “It seems the Republican Party bosses disagree.”

Senate President Jeff Essmann rejected the notion there is an orchestrated effort to kill such legislation. The Billings Republican said he only told the Republican committee that SB124 was too vague and could lead to more litigation.

Essmann, noting that courts have found ATP was supposed to disclose under current law, said he would back legislation that supports current court definitions for such groups.

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