State argues that campaign contribution limits do not hinder candidates

2012-09-14T17:30:00Z 2012-09-15T00:15:22Z State argues that campaign contribution limits do not hinder candidatesBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
September 14, 2012 5:30 pm  • 

HELENA — Montana’s dollar limits on campaign donations aren’t preventing candidates from getting their message out to voters, and aren’t stopping political parties from wielding influence, either, a lawyer for the state argued Friday.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence that the political parties’ voices are being held to a mere whisper, as they’ve claimed,” Assistant Attorney General Mike Black told U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell.

Yet a lawyer for a coalition of Republican Party groups, individuals and business groups argued otherwise, saying Montana’s campaign donor restrictions are stifling candidates and political parties.

“The state is trying to blunt the ability of the candidate to convey his message,” said James Bopp of Terre Haute, Ind. “That’s what the First Amendment protects – speech and association.”

The two lawyers made their appeals Friday on the final day of a trial before Lovell on whether Montana’s campaign limits should be struck down or revised.

Lovell gave the two sides about 10 days to submit their final written arguments, after which he’ll rule.

Montana law limits the maximum amount that individuals and political-action committees (PACs) can give to state candidates, depending on the office.

The limit is $630 for giving to gubernatorial candidates, per election cycle, and $160 for legislative candidates.

The law also has aggregate limits on how much a candidate can accept from PACs and political party committees. For example, a state House candidate can accept $800 from all party committees and $1,600 from all PACs, and a gubernatorial candidate can accept up to $22,600 from all party committees.

Bopp, who’s been involved in cases across the country attacking campaign-spending limits, said a more reasonable maximum for individuals giving to gubernatorial candidates or other candidates is $1,000.

The suit asks Lovell to strike down the aggregate PAC and party committee limits entirely, and to void the individual limits and send the issue back to the Montana Legislature to set higher limits.

The lawsuit challenging the limits is one of three major lawsuits spearheaded by American Tradition Partnership, a pro-business lobby, challenging Montana campaign finance laws.

ATP already has succeeded in voiding Montana’s ban on corporate spending to influence elections, and is also attacking the state’s attempt to force ATP to disclose its donors and spending on campaign-related material.

Bopp said Friday that the aggregate limits have “almost completely wiped out PACs and parties from doing anything.”

Black countered that Montana law allows political parties to be involved in the campaign in many ways other than giving money to candidates, and that they’re still very active in campaigns.

Black also said that candidates who testified during the trial that they couldn’t raise enough money were shown to be able to run an effective campaign, and merely wanted to be “louder” in advocating for their campaign.

“It’s a matter of volume: ‘If I had enough money, I could be louder,’” Black said.

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