HELENA – A group of Republican lawmakers launched plans Monday for a ballot measure aimed at shedding light on so-called “dark money” in politics — a divisive issue inside the GOP.
The effort is led by legislators who have been billing themselves as the “Responsible Republicans” in ongoing battles with conservative foes in the GOP ranks. Some of the veteran lawmakers were targeted last year with attack mailers from anonymous groups in contentious GOP primary battles.
The ballot initiative will be based in part on legislation from the past session that was killed by conservative GOP leaders.
The legislation sought improved disclosure of spending and donations from third-party groups so voters better understand who is behind political speech. Backers argued such groups can’t hide behind a nonprofit status, or claims of being an educational organization.
State Sen. Bruce Tutvedt of Kalispell said out-of-state groups with nothing but a P.O. Box for an identifier can swamp GOP senate primaries with $100,000. Candidates who struggle to raise $10,000 in such races have no way to fight the negative advertising blitz.
“We are excited that this is going forward,” Tutvedt said of the ballot measure. “I think this makes the point, and it will make it harder for dark money to influence Montana elections in a way that isn’t good for the folks.”
Supporters said they are working on a draft of the ballot measure. To qualify, they face the difficult hurdle of gathering more than 24,000 signatures from voters across Montana.
“This is going to be a very grassroots campaign,” said Sandy Welch, a Republican helping with the campaign. “We really do expect to get a lot of popular support.”
But bill critics have argued that such restrictions were tilted to help Democrats who have advantages in other areas of politics, such as union-backed get-out-the-vote efforts.
They also argued that anonymity is important in political speech and that the restrictions would be 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.
State Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge, a vocal critic of the dissident Republicans, helped found a nonprofit group called Montana Growth Network that champions conservative causes to help like-minded candidates. Priest said he is withholding judgment on the new ballot initiative until he sees the details.
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