HELENA — The Montana Senate on Wednesday voted to revive special accounts that state legislators could use for costs associated with the job, accounts nearly shuttered amid concerns of abuse.
Senate Bill 241 passed in a final vote 29-21 on Wednesday.
The measure would allow state senators to raise up to $1,000 for each county they must cover in their district. House representatives would be allowed half that amount per county. The measure also restricts the amount of money donated by a single donor to $500.
Sen. John Brenden, of Scobey, carried the bill and said lawmakers now must spend money out of their own pockets to visit constituents and attend meetings. The Republican said his district covers six counties and argued lawmakers should be allowed to raise money to pay for such travel.
"What this allows you to do is to raise money for a so-called "constituent account" based upon the counties that you serve," Brenden said.
But critics fear potential abuses.
The so-called "constituent account" has been dormant ever since the Legislature cracked down on perceived abuses in 2007.
At the time, state officials were raising thousands in unregulated money from lobbyists and others with no oversight. The Legislature tightly regulated the accounts, nearly abolishing them altogether, in 2007 after they came under fire from critics who argued that they were ripe for abuse.
The constituency accounts started as a place for politicians to put excess campaign donations, with the idea that the money could generally be used for constituency services. They grew over the years into an account that could accept donations — with no disclosure — from almost anyone to be used on any purpose.
An Associated Press investigation at the time found state officials were taking donations as large as $10,000, sometimes from lobbyists, with almost no disclosure on how the money was used.
Opponents of Brenden's bill argued such conflicts could rise again.
"What this would do is allow fundraising while we are here, i.e. those people out in the hallways would be opening checkbooks and writing checks," Democrat Sen. Anders Blewett, of Great Falls, said of the potential for lobbyist money to flow into lawmakers' pockets.
Senators from urban districts also opposed the bill, arguing that it favored legislators from rural districts because they represent more counties and could raise more money.
But rural lawmakers promised more protections from abuse.
Republican Sen. Alan Olson, of Roundup, said rising gas prices and a far-flung constituency make travel expensive. He said the funds would be transparent and reported to the Commissioner of Political Practices.
"I have got a whole lot more respect for this body then to accuse members of this body of selling out for thick steak and aged whiskey," Olson said.
The measure needs to clear both the House and Gov. Steve Bullock's office.