GOP Split Lingers Over ‘Dark Money’ Crackdown

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Senate debate Friday on a relatively minor bill dealing with so-called “dark money” in politics prompted another public row in the Republican caucus.

The issue has split Republicans all session after anonymous groups’ spending in recent elections has helped fuel bitter GOP primary battles. Some Republicans have been siding with Democrats in an effort to bring more rules to groups that engage in elections but don’t disclose donors.

Republican debate on Friday got so contentious that it prompted an apology from Senate President Jeff Essmann for not doing enough to preserve decorum in the chamber — a hot topic since a rowdy protest from Democrats angered Republicans.

But this time, Democrats just sat back and watched Republicans argue with their caucus leader.

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman agitated some in his caucus by alleging a “crossover coalition” of Republicans was siding with Democrats. He argued the “feel -good” bill would create unforeseen issues.

The bill would require a new disclaimer on materials sent by groups that find a way to avoid disclosing donors.

Republican state Sen. Llew Jones of Conrad dismissed Wittich’s concern as “gobbledygook,” coming from those who want to hide in a “maze of darkness.”

Ongoing debate over the issue riled Republican Sen. Alan Olsen, who became upset over the “coalition allegation from Wittich and a coalition and an inference over vote trading. Olson challenged his party’s majority leader to name names.

“I don’t know the specific names right now, but we see it on the board often,” Wittich replied.

Wittich suggested to Olson he would be on the list of vote-traders, and that “we all know that it happens.”

Jones quickly rose to challenge Wittich’s “crossover caucus” comment by asking the Bozeman lawyer if lawmakers are bound to their caucus.

“You seem to be suggesting, somehow, that our vote was specifically owed to a group of people for some reason, that we couldn’t vote our conscience or we couldn’t represent our constituents,” Jones said.

The result was one of the largest favorable Senate votes yet this session for bill going after dark money. It was endorsed 38-11.

Supporters lauded the bill as a small step toward shedding light on some groups skirting campaign finance rules.

“I believe those that are willing to speak freely should be willing to freely identify themselves,” said Jones, a Conrad businessman.

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