Split Senate Backs Bill Reining in ‘Dark Money’

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The public rift among Republicans in the state Senate widened a bit Monday when the chamber bucked GOP leaders and advanced a measure that aims to crack down on so-called dark money political groups.

The Republican Senate leaders even tried to rally their troops by promising that the campaign finance overhaul measure would give Democrats an advantage in elections.

But the chamber endorsed Senate Bill 375, brought by Republican state Sen. Jim Peterson who has teamed up with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock on the measure, in a 29-21 vote. The supporters had forced the floor vote over the objections of GOP leaders in the chamber who sought to delay the measure.

The bill tries to force improved disclosure of spending and donations from third-party groups so voters better understand who is behind political speech. It says such groups can’t hide behind a nonprofit status, or claims of being an educational organization.

“It’s about transparency and accountability. This bill is designed to address dark money that hides behind a curtain of secrecy and works in an environment that, I think, stifles debate,” said Peterson. “What we are trying to do here is level the playing field so that everyone is playing by the same rules.”

The lengthy measure also increases the amount of money that candidates can collect, including from political parties. That provision has drawn criticism for allowing even more money in politics, but supporters argue it is necessary to direct political money through groups that disclose activity and to ensure bipartisan support.

Republican Senate leaders unsuccessfully argued Monday that the bill is unconstitutional in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on political speech. Some of those cases featured other Montana laws, including a 100-year-old ban on some corporate politicking that was thrown out last year by the nation’s high court.

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman, whose law firm has represented conservative efforts fighting state campaign finance laws, predicted the new law will suffer the same fate.

He said anonymity has long been an important part of political speech in the country. Wittich also argued the measure, if implemented, won’t stop lies in politics.

“People will speak. They will just hires lot of lawyers and lots of consultants to work around this bill,” Wittich said. “You are not going to see all the disclosure you want.”

State Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge warned fellow Republicans that the measure won’t affect anonymous blogs, a venue he argued where Democrats hold an advantage. He said Democrats have an election model that relies on using groups to help register voters and motivate them to vote, which the bill won’t hamper.

“Their business model is exempt under this bill,” Priest said to Republicans. “Vote for this, and keep losing elections. Because that is what this is.”

But Republicans hammered in divisive primaries by attack mailers from conservative groups turned on their leaders, mentioning news reports that Priest and others raised money with an effort to orchestrate leadership elections in their favor. Republicans supporting the measure said the conservative groups demanded allegiance on certain issues — and promised harsh and untruthful attacks to candidates that didn’t fall in line.

“The most despicable person in westerns is the bushwhacker, the person who sits in the bushes and shoots someone in the back. And that is dark money,” said state Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. “Dark money is the most destructive thing happening to politics today.”

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