Legislature Takes on ‘Dark Money’

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – An overhaul of Montana’s campaign finance laws has been referred to the Senate judiciary committee, setting the stage for discussion to begin in the near future on a bill aimed at combating “dark money” in elections.

Sen. Jim Peterson, a Republican from Buffalo, has sponsored Senate Bill 375, which clarifies state campaign finance laws in an effort to prevent anonymous political spending, which was widely prevalent during Montana’s last election cycle.

Peterson announced his proposal last month in a joint press conference with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in a showing of bipartisan support. Peterson hopes similar bipartisanship will carry the bill through the Senate and House.

“It will level the playing field,” Peterson said. “People are going to have to be accountable and transparent. It’s not going to prevent anybody from participating, but if you do participate you have to be transparent and accountable.”

“The only people who don’t want to support it,” he added, “are people who want to use the dark money.”

A conservative group called American Tradition Partnership has made headlines in Montana in recent years for challenging the state’s campaign finance laws and widely distributing political material, including a deluge of mailers throughout last year’s primaries and general election.

The group has argued it doesn’t have to disclose funding sources or spending because of its tax-exempt status as an educational nonprofit and social-welfare organization. It has also maintained that its political attack ads are distributed for the purpose of educating the public about certain issues rather than to explicitly advocate for or against a candidate.

Critics have argued the group illegally coordinated with candidates. Kalispell Sen. Bruce Tutvedt and former Polson Sen. Carmine Mowbray – two Republican targets of American Tradition Partnership’s mailers during last year’s primaries – are voicing their support of Peterson’s bill.

Mowbray, who lost to Sen. Janna Taylor in the Senate District 6 Republican primary, recently wrote a letter to the editor arguing that dark money is “undermining the spirit of local representative government.”

“Free speech isn’t libelous speech cloaked in anonymity,” Mowbray wrote. “Free speech is dialogue where both sides express themselves.”

Another major “dark money” third-party spender last election was Montana Hunters and Anglers, a left-leaning group consisting of a super PAC and a nonprofit. The group pumped significant funds into the U.S. Senate race between Democrat incumbent Jon Tester and Republican challenger Denny Rehberg.

Peterson’s bill seeks to close loopholes that allow third-party groups to circumvent reporting and disclosure requirements, clarifying language on types of political committees, tax status exemptions, “electioneering communication” within 90 days of an election, candidate coordination and other campaign finance fundamentals.

The bill also raises candidate contribution limits for individuals and political action committees, while prohibiting unions and corporations from contributing directly to candidates. Supporters say the result will be more fully disclosed, direct contributions to candidates and the decline of anonymous third-party spending.

Tutvedt says that groups would be more reluctant to engage in mudslinging if they have to disclose information, and would be more likely to “tell the truth.”

“I believe this bill will pass,” Tutvedt said. “I think the voters are ready for this.”

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