If a candidate for public office in Montana raised $900,000, he would have to report the funding sources, identifying donors by name.
When political action committees spend money to influence elections, they must report their spending and identify their funding sources.
Montana Growth Network
But when the Montana Growth Network raised $900,000 in 2012 and spent money promoting Montana candidates, it was not required to tell voters where it got the money. The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices has received complaints that Montana Growth Network should have registered as a political committee and identified its donors in 2012. However, this money machine, created by state senators Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, and Ed Walker, R-Billings, is organized under U.S. tax code as a 501(c) (4) “social welfare” group, so its money sources remain secret.
This “advocacy” loophole is an affront to the transparency and openness essential to our election process. The 501 (c) (4) loophole is one of many reasons that federal tax code must be reformed.
Montana will be electing 100 state representatives and 25 state senators in the June 3 primary and Nov. 4 General Election. Dark money from groups such as the Priest-Walker Montana Growth Network and American Tradition Partnership may be spending again on our elections again. America Tradition Partnership successfully challenged Montana’s century-old ban on corporate political contributions, so, in keeping with the U.S. Supreme Court decision that corporations and labor unions are people, too, there can be unlimited spending by these outside funders.
There is little that Montanans can do to stop the money flooding us with fliers and TV ads. But the Legislature can make the spending more transparent. Bipartisan legislation that aimed to hold big political spenders accountable failed to pass the 2013 session. If Montanans elect candidates this year who support transparency and openness, that legislation can become law in the 2015 session.
Inititative 168 from Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, proposes to require reporting and donor disclosure from entities that spend more than $500 or send more than 200 letters within 60 days of an election advocating for or against candidates. Proponents must gather sufficient voter signatures to get the measure on the General Election ballot.
When The Gazette asked legislative candidates what information voters should have about third-party spenders, the answers were enlightening.
Candidate opinions count
“The voters should have available: The name or the party or parties placing the ad, the name of all of their contributors, and their valid addresses,” said Jim Paugh, R-Coffee Creek, who is running in House District 30.
“The voters have the right to know (disclose) who these third-party groups are and their source of money which bankrolls the collaborating attacks on opponents,” said Tom Berry, R-Roundup.
“Voters should have access to all the information they need,” said Debra Bonogofsky, R-Billings.
But other candidates defend the status quo. Senate President Jeff Essmann, who is running for the House seat in District 54, cited a 1956 Supreme Court ruling in favor of secrecy in NAACP membership lists.
State Rep. Sarah Laszloffy, R-Billings, defended secret spending, saying: “Dark money bills are being promoted by politicians who don’t want their voting records exposed.”
Read the candidate responses to the campaign spending question and other issue questions in the 2014 Voter Guide that was delivered in Sunday’s Gazette or read it online at the link with this Gazette opinion at billingsgazette.com.
Get informed about what information the candidates think you should have about campaign spending.