HELENA — The Senate, in a vote Monday that exposed the split among Republicans, endorsed an overhaul of Montana’s campaign finance law to require anonymous “dark money” political groups to disclose their donors.
Following a nearly three-hour debate, the Senate voted 29-21 in favor of Senate Bill 375, by Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo. It faces a final Senate vote before moving to the House.
A combination of nine Republicans and 20 Democrats voted for the bill, while 20 Republicans, including the party’s leaders, joined by one Democrat, opposed it. A similar coalition on Friday successfully blasted the bill from the Senate Judiciary Committee where it had stalled.
Peterson has worked with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock on what they call the TRACE Act, which stands for Transparency, Reporting and Accountability in Campaigns and Elections Act.
They and other advocates of the bill called it a major campaign reform bill that’s desperately needed in a state in recent years where candidates have faced an onslaught of anonymous attack mailings from groups affiliated with American Tradition Partnership and others. A documentary by the PBS television show “Frontline” exposed some of the attack mailings sent here.
“I feel like this bill is all about following the money,” Peterson said. “We’re trying to level the playing field.”
Republicans argued that the bill needs a lot more work that should have been done in committee, but couldn’t be done because the bill was blasted out last week before the panel could act on it.
Peterson conceded the bill isn’t perfect, but said that any problems can be fixed in the House.
“I really truly believe it adds integrity to the process,” Peterson said. “It adds credibility to the process. It adds transparency to the process and makes our political campaigns better for the people of the state.”
Republican opponents attacked the bill’s constitutionality and argued that it would hand Democrats a decided advantage in elections.
“Vote for this and keep losing elections, because that’s what this is,” said Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge.
Peterson said nine lawyers have reviewed the bill, including a constitutional law expert, and believe it will withstand any legal challenges.
Disagreeing was Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, an attorney who predicted courts would overturn the bill if it becomes law. He said only a handful of Montana lawyers and law firms handle political speech cases, and his law firm is one of them.
“We are going to make a lot of money off of this,” Wittich said. “This bill will be challenged, and it will be overturned.”
He and other Republicans argued that the bill won’t pass constitutional muster in light of various U.S. Supreme Court decisions involving political free speech, including its 2010 decision in the Citizens United case. They cited the court’s two-sentence order last year that struck down Montana’s 1912 ban on corporate spending in political races.
Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, also an attorney, said he was confident the bill would withstand constitutional challenges.
One supporter, Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, said he hasn’t decided yet, but is leaning against running again because his wife and children are urging him not to file for office again.
“When your spouse and children are in tears for the lies that are sent out, I think we are entitled to know who sent them out,” he said.
Sen. Ed Walker, R-Billings, urged fellow Republicans to oppose the bill because he believes it would give Democrats a big advantage by not requiring the reporting of the costs of volunteers canvassing, registering voters and transporting them to the polls.
“Those on our side really have to take a look at it,” he said. “It really does give an unfair advantage to our friends on the other side of the aisle. This is a great campaign bill for them.”
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said he spent his childhood working in sheep camps where he read a lot of Western novels.
“The most despicable person was the bushwhacker who stayed in the bushes and shot people in the back,” he said. “And that is dark money. Dark money is the most corruptive thing that exists in politics today.”
Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, opposed the bill as “a double standard.”
“This bill can only deal with the context of campaigns,” he said. “But if you think we can get rid of vicious, untruthful attacks on character, you’re kidding yourself.”
Nothing will change, Essmann said, “as long as we have a compliant press and an Internet that allows that same kind of anonymity.”
Besides Peterson, the other Republicans who voted for the bill were Sens. Ron Arthun of Wilsall, Taylor Brown of Huntley, Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, Llew Jones of Conrad, Dave Lewis of Helena, Alan Olson of Roundup, Rick Ripley of Wolf Creek and Bruce Tutvedt of Kalispell.
Sen. Dave Wanzenried of Missoula was the lone Democrat to oppose the bill.