HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock said Friday that the state’s next political practices chief could still influence regulation of so-called “dark money” despite the failure of legislation dealing with the issue.
Bullock said he expects to name a new political practices commissioner next week. The position has suffered in recent years from partisan wrangling and high turnover.
The governor has interviewed five candidates that were suggested to him by the Legislature, asking each about the increase in political contributions that avoid the sort of disclosure policed by the office.
Bullock said he is not restricted to that list of applicants and could pick another candidate.
The next commissioner will have to make some decisions on how to enforce recent court rulings surrounding so-called “dark money” groups.
A judge has ruled during one of several legal battles featuring American Tradition Partnership that the group’s activities did indeed require it to file disclosure reports as a political committee — regardless of its nonprofit tax status. The judge’s decision upheld a past opinion of the political practices office, which had been ignored by ATP.
Bullock and others tried to clarify with legislation that such nonprofit groups are required to disclose political spending aimed at influencing elections. The measure failed amid stiff opposition from conservative Republican leaders who argued the crackdown did more harm to GOP-allied groups.
“I have yet to see the person that says, ‘What our political system needs is more dark, undisclosed money,’” Bullock said.
But the Democratic governor, who assisted in legal battles on the issue when he was attorney general, said it will be up to the next commissioner of political practices to decide how exactly current rules apply to third-party groups absent any new laws.
“Dark money was a big issue for me, but it was also a big issue for Montanans,” Bullock said. “Part of it is legislative fixes, part of it is active enforcement. And I think those are the two main pieces that need to be focused on right now.”
A recent report says most states have yet to catch up to the growth in political spending by such third-party groups, which accelerated after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that struck down certain outright bans on spending as an unconstitutional restriction of speech.
The National Institute on Money in State Politics on Thursday ranked Montana as one of 26 states with a failing grade for disclosure requirements for outside interest groups. The group points out that rules in federal races, such as U.S. Senate, do require disclosure.
“This assessment demonstrates the poor state of disclosure of the money spent by outside groups,” Edwin Bender, the Helena-based institute’s executive director, said for the report. “The majority of states will elect their governors and other major statewide offices in 2014. But the public will not know how much money will be spent to influence the outcome of most of those races.”