HELENA — A federal judge on Thursday put back into place limits on what Montana's political parties can give to campaigns.
State attorneys on Tuesday argued that U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell should issue a stay over part of his own order from last week that removed contribution limits for the political party committees.
In his order May 17, Lovell said the contribution limits were too low and unconstitutional, but left what happened next up to Attorney General Tim Fox.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl interpreted Lovell's order as ending limits set by a 1994 initiative and said he was required to reinstate the limits that were in place before then, adjusted for inflation.
That left the limits for contributions from individuals and political action committees significantly higher, especially for PACs.
However, adopting the old limits for what a political party can give would have created a lower limit than what Lovell struck down as too low.
That created a situation where there were no limits on what political parties could contribute and led to the state filing a stay last Thursday.
Motl said the commissioner's office is "pleased and grateful with the order."
"It brings stability to the 20016 election because we have limits completely in place," he said.
Attorney General Tim Fox has filed a notice of appeal on Lovell's overall order issued May 17, but unlike a similar situation in 2012 the appeal will not be fast-tracked.
Motl has emphasized he wants what happened in that election, when Lovell also said the state's contribution limits were too low. That go-around there were no limits in place for a week, during which stretch then candidate-for-governor Rick Hill recieved $500,00 from the Montana Republican Party. A complaint was filed against Hill, who lost to now Gov. Steve Bullock. That complaint that was dropped by Motl just last week.
Groups including American Tradition Partnership PAC, Montana Right to Life PAC and Lake and Beaverhead Counties Republican Central Committees had filed to halt the limits before the June 7 primary election.
In Thursday's order, Lovell said the state can now enforce the unconstitutional, but higher, limit cap for political parties. Issuing a stay, he said, "will permit the commissioner to enforce what he sees as the lesser of the two evils."
The limits put into place on contributions from individuals and PACs by Motl's policy last week still stand.
The Attorney General’s Office is "pleased that Judge Lovell agreed with our arguments and closed the political party contribution loophole. Hopefully this provides some predictability and stability for the current election cycle, giving legislators and the governor the opportunity to revisit the issue during the 2017 session," said spokesman John Barnes.
Gov. Steve Bullock said Thursday he will follow the laws now in place. Democratic Party spokeswoman Nancy Keenan was traveling Thursday and not available for comment.
Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte said he will continue to follow the rules in place before Lovell's decision as well.
Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann said the Montana Republican Party will "abide by the rulings of the court with respect to limits on contributions by the party to candidates."
He said all donations to the party and by the party will be disclosed in compliance with Montana’s campaign finance laws.
He also said the Montana Democratic Party uses what some call a "loophole" that allows people employed and paid by the party to provide staff members to candidates as an unlimited in-kind contribution. In 2008 the Montana Republican Party filed a complaint that now Gov. Steve Bullock's campaign for attorney general used two paid staffers from the Montana Democratic Party. Acting Commissioner of Political Practices Jay Dufrechou dismissed the complaint, saying that was allowed under state law.
“Bullock is the recipient of the unlimited corporate donations that he and Democrats publicly decry, he just found a way to keep it hidden," Essmann said Thursday.
Republican attorney Matthew Monforton said "Fox and Motl's success in getting the stay has the unfortunate side effect of reviving the Bullock loophole."
Democrats, he said, have used the law to "launder money from PACs and special interests to their candidates in the form of personal services provided by paid party staffers."
Monforton said state Republican Party doesn't have enough money to do the same because donors give directly to candidates and county central committees.
"Conservatives around the state are no longer contributing to the state party because of their anger over its abandonment of the open primary suit," he said.
Last month the party dropped out of a lawsuit to allow only voters who are registered as Republicans to vote in the GOP's primary election. However, 10 county committees are still pursuing the case.