Following two hours of debate, a barrage of failed amendments and yet another example of the intraparty rift among GOP lawmakers, the Montana House endorsed a bill to require so-called “dark money” groups to disclose donor sources and campaign spending.
House members voted 51-49 to endorse Senate Bill 289 while passing just one of 16 Republican amendments in a narrow vote that saw a coalition of all 41 Democrats and 10 moderate Republicans unite to endorse Senate Bill 289, sponsored by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip.
Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, defected from the ranks of Republican leadership and the majority of the caucus to argue for the measure, at several points holding up an illustration of marionette strings attached to the Capitol building to illustrate the powerful influence of outside interest groups, and saying Montanans deserve to know the identity of “the hands on the puppet strings.”
Garner repeatedly stood up and resisted the Republican-introduced amendments to water down the measure, standing firm even as he described it as a difficult stance.
“This is not an easy thing to do, to stand up in front of my caucus today in disagreement with some of the people I have such great respect for. But I believe this is right. That is the legacy I want to leave, one of fairness, one of disclosure,” Garner said.
Senate Bill 289 aims to shed light on anonymous money that began flowing into elections after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court held that it is unconstitutional to prohibit corporations from making political expenditures if the money is not given directly to a candidate.
The measure would require newly defined groups to publicize reports on political donations and expenditures if they spend money supporting or opposing candidates or ballot issues.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter praised the efforts of Gov. Steve Bullock, for whom the bill is a top priority. Bullock actively promoted campaign finance disclosure as the state attorney general and as governor teamed up with Anknety to pass the measure.
“In the four terms I have been here I think this rises to the level of importance the way few bills do,” Hunter said. “It’s about disclosure, pure and simple. It’s about letting folks know who is influencing our government.”
“Ultimately it’s important to our democracy because honesty and transparency are important to our democracy,” he added.
Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, was the lone lawmaker to offer a successful set of amendments, including reining in ads that resemble newspapers and allowing candidates to refrain from disclosing in-kind personal service contributions provided by a political party.
Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, tried adding 10 amendments and questioned whether the governor’s signature would only come if the bill came without amendments. Others said blasting the measure to the floor was not an ideal process under which to pass a major bill.
Republican Rep. Wendy McKamey of Great Falls said the bill is one of the most important of the session but that she’d be voting against it.
“This is probably the most important thing we are going to be voting on,” she said. “To say it is a dark money bill, that is a boogie man term.”
The coalition of Democrats and the moderate Republicans also endured criticism from hardline conservatives because they sent the bill to the House Business and Labor Committee instead of the House State Administration Committee, where election bills are normally assigned. Then earlier this week, the same coalition blasted SB289 out of committee before it acted on it and sent the measure directly to the floor.
Republicans also criticized Bullock for bringing the bill while he raises “dark money” as the current chair of the Democratic Governors Association, a national organization working to get more Democratic governors elected. Bullock has said the DGA won’t spend any dark money to influence elections while he’s chair.
But Garner concluded by saying the bill would make Montana elections fairer and more transparent and “provide a place full of light where darkness dare not tread.”
“The future of our elections are in our hands,” he said.