HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, and a Republican state senator joined forces Thursday behind a bill they said will force backers of anonymous political attacks in Montana to disclose their donors.
“It is one thing to lie and distort the records of positions of those seeking office,” Bullock said at a Capitol news conference. “It takes it to a whole different level when those trying to corrupt our elections aren’t even courageous enough to stand behind their statements by disclosing who is writing the check.”
Bullock said he is supporting a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, that, among other things, will require groups funding such attacks to report their donors.
The bill, not yet introduced, is a sweeping reform of state campaign-finance laws, aimed at forcing more disclosure on campaign spending, reducing the influence of outside groups and directing more campaign contributions to candidates.
Peterson, who appeared at the news conference alongside Bullock, said Montanans are tired of “dirty politics, mud-slinging and personal attacks.”
“I think they’re even more disgusted that many of these tactics are hidden inside dark-money organizations and are unaccountable to the general public,” he said. “Our democracy operates best when it operates in the full light of day.”
Peterson and Bullock’s office have been talking for several weeks about the measure, which could be the session’s major bill addressing campaign-finance issues.
The bill would make the following changes in state law:
• Any group that funds communications mentioning a candidate within 60 days of an election must report its spending and donors. Under current law, many nonprofit groups claim such communication is “educational” and not subject to reporting laws.
• Corporations that make “independent expenditures” to influence elections must disclose the members of their board of directors and shareholders of more than 10 percent of the company’s stock.
• Those giving more than $2,000 to a group that makes political expenditures must be identified and reported.
• Montana’s campaign-contribution limits would be increased, from $630 to $2,000 for gubernatorial candidates; to $1,000 for other statewide candidates, and $500 for all other candidates.
• The limit on total political-action committee donations to legislative candidates would be eliminated.
• Fines for violating Montana election laws would be increased.
While Peterson and some Republicans have indicated they’ll support the bill, Senate President Jeff Essman, R-Billings, said Thursday that the Legislature has more important things to work on, like improving the economy.
“While the political theater surrounding campaign-finance legislation provides great fodder for Helena insiders, we need to remember Montanans sent us here to address real problems affecting their jobs and our state’s economy,” he said in a prepared statement.
C.B. Pearson of Montana Common Cause, a group supporting campaign-finance reform, said he looks forward to analyzing the Peterson bill.
However, he said removing the aggregate limit on PAC donations “is a problem.” In other states without such a limit, wealthy individuals have formed multiple PACs to give the maximum donation to candidates, he said.
Bullock, who as attorney general fought last year to uphold Montana’s campaign finance limits and regulations, said Thursday that he’s heard many people complain about the escalating money and negativity in politics.
“Montana citizens want us to get this (reform) done, and, working together, we will get it done,” he said.