GOP candidates, officials challenge Montana’s campaign-contribution limit at trial

2012-09-12T18:05:00Z 2012-09-12T20:37:06Z GOP candidates, officials challenge Montana’s campaign-contribution limit at trialBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
September 12, 2012 6:05 pm  • 

HELENA — Montana’s dollar limits on what people and groups can donate to candidates’ campaigns are too low, and unduly restrict what people are able and willing to give, witnesses tied to the Republican Party testified Wednesday in federal court.

“We want to support the candidates who are most in line with the principles that we hold,” said James Brown, an attorney and member of the Beaverhead County Republican Central Committee in Dillon. “We want to retain Republican seats in the Legislature.”

Brown said the state’s aggregate limit on what all party committees can give to any one candidate severely restricts local committees’ ability to help specific candidates, and should be struck down.

Brown testified on the first day of a trial on the lawsuit by a coalition of individuals, political groups and businesses asking a federal judge to strike down Montana’s contribution limits as unconstitutional. Brown also is an attorney for the coalition.

A lawyer for the state argued Wednesday that Montana’s limits are constitutional, and the state will show that the limits don’t unfairly restrict anyone from getting involved in Montana politics.

The “limits are not so low as to deprive political parties, individuals (or candidates) … a meaningful opportunity to participate in the electoral process,” said Assistant Attorney General Michael Black.

The case before U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena is one of three major lawsuits spearheaded by American Tradition Partnership (ATP), a pro-business lobby, to challenge Montana campaign-finance laws.

The coordinated effort, which also involves business groups and Republican Party groups, has been mounted largely in the wake of the January 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That ruling struck down restrictions on corporate and union spending on elections, and has led to subsequent decisions that further eroded other limits on campaign spending.

Joining Brown on Wednesday in court on behalf of the groups challenging Montana’s campaign-donation limits was James Bopp, an Indiana attorney who’s been involved in cases across the nation attacking limits on campaign spending.

Bopp also was one of the original lawyers representing Citizens United, in its lawsuit that led to the landmark Supreme Court decision.

A lawsuit by ATP already has voided Montana’s century-old ban on corporate spending to influence elections, and a second action is attacking the state’s attempt to force ATP to disclose its donors and spending on campaign-related material. The latter case is scheduled for trial next year.

The third case, filed in federal court, also has led to the voiding of several state “clean campaign laws” designed to force candidates and groups to document claims in advertising and campaign material.

But Wednesday’s trial is focusing only on that lawsuit’s challenge of Montana’s campaign-donation limits.

Under Montana law, individuals and political-action committees (PACs) can give no more than $630 to a gubernatorial candidate, $310 to candidates for other statewide offices, and $160 to candidates running for district offices, such as the Legislature.

The law also limits the total amount that all PACs or political party committees can give to certain types of candidates. For example, a House candidate can accept only $800 from political party committees and $1,600 from PACs, and a gubernatorial candidate can accept up to $22,600 from all political party committees.

Brown said the Beaverhead County Republican Central Committee wants to donate several thousand dollars to various GOP legislative candidates this year, but in some cases can’t give anything, because that House candidate has already accepted $800 from other party committees.

John Milanovich, a Bozeman businessman who ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature as a Republican in 2008, testified Wednesday that the $160 limit on individual donations means he had to spend much more time raising money.

If donors could give more money, he could spend less time raising money and more time meeting with voters and learning about issues, he testified. Milanovich is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The trial resumes in Helena on Thursday.

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