Dark and Darker

Breaking down Gov. Steve Bullock's "dark money" executive order

By Dave Skinner

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock made national news in early June with a policy speech given in Washington, D.C. in cooperation with the Center for American Progress.

Bullock’s talk wasn’t merely to showcase policy. After decades in Montana public service, both bureaucratic and elective, Bullock’s governorship will hit term limits in 2020 – and he’s too young to retire.

Is he considering challenging freshman Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, whose first term expires in 2020? Perhaps. Much more likely, as one of only 16 current Democratic state governors, with a recent chairmanship (and “fresh” fundraising networks) of the Democratic Governors Association, Bullock seeks the White House – or at least the Naval Observatory, where the vice president lives.

Further aligning Bullock’s stars: After Montana’s part-time Legislature (which will probably remain Republican in 2018) adjourns in May 2019, Bullock will be free to hang up his veto pen and campaign, while still enjoying the perks (including a mansion) of being a sitting governor.

So aside from the window-shopping, did Bullock put forth a serious policy position that sets him up as a serious presidential contender?

His topic was political “dark money,” which he declared “is fundamentally eroding American democracy.” I emphatically agree with that.

Gov. Bullock showcased his June 8 Montana executive order that would require, as a precondition of bidding, all contractors offering the state over $25,000 in services or $50,000 in goods must report political “covered expenditures” in excess of $2,500 for the 24 months prior, or certify there were none. The reports would go to a public database.

Spending “covered” includes candidates, parties and committees or payments for “electioneering communications” regardless of “tax status.” Of course, “no agency […] may discriminate between” bidders making these disclosures.

On the surface, this executive action could increase “transparency” in political finance, but does it do so enough to “matter” and, also importantly, fairly?

Well, a quick check of the Federal Elections Commission website shows just over $5.5 million in dirty dollars dumped so far into Montana’s U.S. Senate race, mostly before the June 6 primary election. The money is being spent by a galaxy of billionaire-funded out-of-state PACs, none of which fall under jurisdiction of Bullock’s executive order. So, with an expected $100 million in totally blackened “dark money” PAC spending expected in the U.S. Senate race all by itself, tracking $1,250 per year completely misses the point.

Worse, in terms of fairness, Bullock’s executive order exempts any “bona fide news story, commentary, blog or editorial” from being considered “electioneering communications.” What about corporations that don’t contract with the state? Not affected – corporations such as unions, environmental groups, various “progressive” non-profits, especially those in the “corporate responsibility” (like boycotts and shareholder activism), all of whom will be able to pay a staffer to wade through the disclosures and then crank out either “opinion” or press releases that inspire “bona fide news” about Evil Corporation, Inc., just before Election Day. Just wait and watch, voters.

I must also note the irony of where Gov. Bullock pretended to take his national stand against “dark money,” on a stage provided by the Center for American Progress. Founded in 2002 by John Podesta after the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Center itself epitomizes Investor’s Business Daily’s definition of dark money – “groups engaged in politics that don’t have to disclose their donors.” Engaged in politics? Oh yeah, NBC News blogger Mike Memoli reported Bullock’s speech for a “Democratic think tank,” a close match to the New York Times’ 2008 description of the Center as a “government-in-exile for liberals.”

As for disclosure, in the past five years the Center averaged a little over $42 million a year in anonymous revenues. About one-fifth of that total income came from “excess donors” who have given (tax deductible, by the way) more than $840,000 each. Simple math shows that to be 40 or fewer very loyal, very rich anonymous donors. Because Center for American Progress doesn’t have to disclose their secret funders to voters – they never have.

If Steve Bullock becomes president, they never will.

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