Bill Seeks to Restrict Robocalls

Rep. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, introduced House Bill 77 to the House State Administration Committee

By ALISON NOON, Associated Press

HELENA — A Montana legislator wants to crack down on the waves of robocalls residents receive in the final months of political campaigns.

Rep. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, introduced House Bill 77 to the House State Administration Committee on Wednesday.

Currently, all automated telephone solicitations are illegal in Montana if a caller does not get permission from the answering party before playing a prerecorded message. Ellis’ measure would allow the state’s commissioner of political practices to prosecute callers who violate that law in the two months before an election.

The bill would not apply to national elections, including those for a congressional or U.S. Senate seat. It would build upon Montana’s set of do-not-call laws that were enacted the same year U.S. Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.The Act put some restrictions on phone solicitations and automated calls but left the regulation of political robocalls up to the states.

County attorneys have the authority to prosecute robocallers who ignore the law in Montana, but no one has since the law was enacted 24 years ago. Ellis said misdemeanors like illegal phone solicitations are not priorities for busy county attorneys.

“Unfortunately it appears that this law has never been enforced,” Ellis said.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said his office, which oversees campaign violations, regularly receives complaints about political callers. Since his office cannot legally take action, Motl said he directs concerned citizens to county attorneys, where complaints largely go unchecked.

“It doesn’t reflect well on our abilities to serve the citizens of the state of Montana,” Motl said.

Motl was the single proponent to speak for the bill on Wednesday. No testimony was given against HB 77.

“We’re not touching the robocall statute itself,” Motl said. “All we’re doing is making it a campaign practice violation.”

Motl assured the committee that a change would be significant.

“We will do it,” Motl said. “If we get a complaint during an election campaign, we will act on it.”

One provision of the state law says callers found in violation could be fined up to $500.

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