Judge Upholds Montana Political Spending Disclosure Rule

Gov. Steve Bullock's executive order requires companies to report political spending if they want to bid on large state contracts

By Tristan Scott

HELENA — A federal judge on Monday upheld an executive order by Montana’s governor that requires companies to report political spending if they want to bid on large state contracts.

U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled the Illinois Opportunity Project does not have the legal standing to challenge Gov. Steve Bullock’s 2018 order, which requires reporting of contributions even to so-called dark money groups. Dark money refers to spending meant to influence elections carried out by nonprofit groups that are not legally obligated to disclose their donors.

Lovell had dismissed the complaint in January due to lack of standing, but gave the Illinois Opportunity Project another chance to prove the executive order would cause it to suffer an actual or imminent, as opposed to hypothetical, loss of a legally protected right.

Daniel Suhr of the Liberty Justice Center, who argued for the Illinois Opportunity Project, said during Thursday’s hearing that one of the organization’s donors was a multi-state corporation that had operations in Montana and has had contracts with the state. However, the state said it knew of no such corporation and the Illinois Opportunity Project did not identify the company, Lovell wrote.

Under Bullock’s order, companies submitting bids for contracts valued at more than $25,000 for services or $50,000 for goods must disclose two years’ worth of political spending if the spending exceeds $2,500.

Bullock has said the order allows Montana to bring transparency to spending by groups classified as social welfare organizations under the federal tax code. The influence of those dark money groups increased dramatically after a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Citizens United that allowed unlimited corporate election spending, as long as corporations report it.

“Out-of-state dark money groups continue to put up smoke and mirrors in an attempt to corrupt our elections in Montana, but they should know well by now that Montana’s elections aren’t for sale,” Bullock said in a statement Monday.

The Illinois Opportunity Project, a nonprofit group that says it advocates for policies driven by the principles of liberty and free enterprise, has said it it planned to send mailings to thousands of Montana voters before the November 2020 gubernatorial election urging the candidates to overturn Bullock’s executive order. The group argued Bullock’s executive order will hamper its ability to raise money to campaign against the order.

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