Gazette opinion: Bipartisan bill would shine light on dark money

2013-02-24T00:10:00Z 2013-04-04T11:41:04Z Gazette opinion: Bipartisan bill would shine light on dark money The Billings Gazette
February 24, 2013 12:10 am

Serving a decade in the Montana Legislature, Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, has heard a lot from constituents, but never had people he didn't know stopping him on the street to thank him. Until now.

Since Peterson and Gov. Steve Bullock announced that they are working together on a bill (LC1821) to shed light on political campaign spending, the senator from Fergus County has heard support from members of both parties and from the public.

"It's the first bill in 11 years where people, just out of the blue are saying, 'Senator, thank you for what you're doing.' I just think people think it's wrong."

The veteran GOP senator and the new Democratic governor might appear to be unlikely allies, yet both have been targets of negative campaigning by entities that didn't disclose their identities and funding sources.

Bullock described the problem succinctly in his State of the State speech last month, saying: "We have seen the rise of so-called dark money groups that target candidates, yet refuse to tell the voting public who they really are and what they really represent. They hide behind made-up names and made-up newspapers. They operated out of P.O. boxes or Washington, D.C., office buildings."

As attorney general, Bullock defended Montana's campaign finance and anti-corruption laws. But voter-enacted safeguards dating back a century were found unconstitutional by a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, and limits on contributions were declared too low by a U.S. District Judge.

If the 2013 Legislature and Bullock fail to act, Montana will head into its next general election cycle with no defense against the secrecy and unlimited spending of special interest groups from outside the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United and in overturning the Montana anti-corruption law make transparency even more critical. The court opened new channels for enormous amounts of cash to flow into state races. The public deserves to know who and where that money is coming from.

The outside money takes control of the campaign away from the candidates and from local voters.

"What's bad about it is you get slammed the last days of the campaign and there's nothing you can do about it," Peterson said.

The bill endorsed by Bullock that Peterson is introducing requires:

- Any groups making more than $500 in independent expenditures for election communications to report to the Montana Office of Political Practice. The bill specifies that the reporting requirement applies to for-profit and nonprofit entities.

- Political spenders must include the political practice website in their communications with voters, so voters can check out their sources.

- An increase potential fines for violations of the reporting law from the present three times the illegal expenditure to four times. Part of the fine would be returned to the political practice office to pay for maintaining the website.

- Raising individual and political committee donation limits to $2,000 for governor, $1,000 for other statewide races and $500 for all other offices.

The most important elements of campaign finance reform are transparency and accountability.

"We think Montana government works better in the sunshine," Peterson told The Gazette last week.

"This is about putting our democracy back in the sunlight where it belongs -- back firmly in the hands of 'we the people,' " Bullock said.

Bipartisan collaboration is the right antidote to the dark money that has clouded Montana politics in recent years. We urge lawmakers to join Bullock and Peterson to vanquish anonymous spending and restore accountability.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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