We agree that elections should be about candidates, ideas, and voters. And we agree that the amount and sources of money funding elections should be visible to all, not hidden or “dark” without disclosure or identification. Many 2012 Montana elections were rife with that dark money use and many regard those elections as unfair.
There is one legislative effort that has a chance to fix dark money but, unfortunately, it is also causing significant collateral damage to good parts of Montana’s existing campaign laws. We write today to publicly ask Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Jim Peterson to fix Senate Bill 375, the so-called “TRACE Act,” as it now moves from the Senate to the House for consideration.
SB375 addresses the serious problem of dark money. We agree with that portion of the bill. SB375 also has provisions that increase current funding limits on contributions to candidate campaigns (thereby overriding previous voter-passed initiatives). We oppose these because they would lead to less disclosure and even more big money in our elections from special interests and the wealthy. Those provisions buck 100 years of voter intent on campaign finance and are inconsistent with the recently approved Initiative 166.
Limit PAC money
SB375 would wrongly repeal Montana’s aggregate PAC limit law. The current aggregate PAC limit is set at $2,150 for Senate and $1,300 for House. Prior to its passage in 1983, some candidates would receive as much as two-thirds of their campaign funds from PACs. For 30 years, PACs have had a very limited role in Montana legislative races. Repealing the aggregate PAC limit would remove this protection and mean more special interest and wealthy contributor involvement in Montana elections. The PAC limit law has also limited the role of special interest lobbyists because they can no longer influence candidates through unlimited PAC contributions.
SB375 wrongly increases current contribution limits. The increases are dramatic in size. For example, the amount a political party can give to a House legislative candidate would increase from $650 under the current law to $5,000. These changes undermine the will of Montanans since current limits were set by Initiative 118, passed by voters in 1994. And despite legal challenge by dark money groups these limits have been upheld.
Big spenders from Texas
Most Montanans are not wealthy people, so increasing the amount of money individuals can give only benefits the wealthy, including those from out of state. We saw this illustrated recently with the report that two billionaire Texans and their wives were the top donors giving over $50,000 in 2012 to Montana legislative candidates. Unless fixed, SB375 would give these Texans the possibility of tripling their current contributions in some cases, and to easily contribute well over $100,000 in upcoming elections. But that’s just if they give as individuals. Unless the PAC provision is removed, SB375 would allow them to create multiple PACs through which they can funnel unlimited money to avoid contribution limits altogether.
In the recent debate on the Senate floor, Peterson said he would work to make corrections to his bill as it moved through the House. We hope both the senator and the governor will amend SB375 and keep in place Montana’s current contribution limits and disclosure thresholds.