HELENA — A public hearing on proposed changes to Montana’s campaign laws that was scheduled for 14 hours at the Capitol this week has so far drawn eight people and about three hours of comments.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl and his general counsel, Jaime MacNaughton, took turns sitting in an empty room in front of a live camera after people testified Wednesday morning.
Motl was hoping the lengthy hearing would allow Montanans from across the state to submit their opinions electronically and respond to each other throughout the two-day meeting that’s being streamed online. But by the end of the first day, just one person had participated remotely.
If approved, the rules would ultimately require more groups to report their campaign donations and move most of the disclosure process online.
Most people who spoke in person were concerned the rules would give the commissioner too much latitude to interpret which companies and organizations must disclose their political endeavors.
“We believe the commissioner’s attempt to disclose dark money bad actors will have the unintended consequence of threatening the ability of our members to engage issues that impact their lives,” Beth Kaeding of the Northern Plains Resource Council said.
Kaeding and Montana Policy Institute Executive Director Brent Mead asked Motl to narrow portions of the rules that aim to determine whether organizations are influencing politics by gauging one or more of their primary purposes and activities. If one of the group’s primary purposes is decidedly political, the group would have to reveal certain donations.
Primary purposes would rely in part on the group’s “election activity,” but some people who spoke Wednesday also objected to that term. Motl has proposed to define “election activity” as any action that “concerns, relates to, or could be reasonably interpreted as an attempt to influence or affect an election or that supports or opposes a candidate or ballot issue.”
“That is so unbelievably broad as to be unenforceable in my opinion,” Mead said. “We’re talking if a butterfly flaps its wings and causes a storm, and that somehow lowers voter turnout, well that has an effect on the election. I don’t see how we can regulate that.”
The hearing will continue all day Thursday.
“We’re hoping that the public, by watching this on the legislative broadcast with the amount of time available, will actually be able to comment,” Motl said.
Emailed comments will be accepted through Sept. 10. The commissioner’s office will then respond in writing to each of the comments and make that report available publicly.
If a legislative oversight panel doesn’t block the rules at its October hearing, the language would be implemented by the secretary of state.
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