We’ll make this simple enough that Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation can understand: Senate Bill 289, which aims to neutralize dark money in Montana elections, is really simple — if you give a campaign donation, you have to disclose it.
It really is just that simple.
Give a donation, it’s recorded — the person, the amount and the occupation of that person.
Laszloffy’s powerful conservative group was one of the handful of folks opposing state Sen. Duane Ankney’s, R-Colstrip, bill aimed at reforming campaign donations and finance. And, if the Legislature did nothing else besides pass this bill, the session might be considered in some way a success because of this gutsy yet ironically common-sense reform, which seems to have a very simple purpose: Let voters know where campaign money is coming from.
Some, like Laszloffy, worry that putting the simple requirements of disclosure would have a chilling effect on politics in Montana. In other words, folks would be less likely to contribute to campaigns because someone might find out they donated to a political candidate. Because of that fear, citizens might be less likely to spend their money on elections, and thus, free speech would be limited.
All those poor politicians might not have as much money.
But these same groups seem to forget that any free speech has consequences — that’s part of the power of free speech. In most circumstances, a person can’t say whatever they want to whoever they want with no consequences. But that’s what our campaign laws do now. They allow folks to give a lot of money that can then be funneled through “dark money” organizations with nebulous-sounding names that channel cash to candidates. There is no transparency and no accountability.
But free speech should also mean believing in it enough to have your name associated with it.
The concept in Ankney’s bill is simple: If your campaign cash is truly an extension of free speech, then it should come with responsibility. That responsibility is transparency. Citizens should see who cares enough about a certain candidate or issue to fund them. If certain beliefs or candidates mean enough to voters to spend cold, hard cash, then why wouldn’t they want others to know who they’re backing? It’s like putting a yard sign in your lawn, and ripping off the house number to try to cloak your identity.
We hope moderates in the Montana House continue to support this bill, which not only has Ankney as a backer, but the governor as a supporter. This will not only give folks the benefit of knowing who is behind the candidates, but it also may help eliminate the smear and attack ad mailers that are nearly impossible to trace and often lead outside the Treasure State’s borders.
This isn’t about giving one side an advantage over another. It’s about disclosure, transparency and accountability. It doesn’t stop folks from spending money. It stops them from spending money anonymously. And, if that’s happening, it has to raise the question: Why would you not want your name associated with a candidate or an issue unless it was less-than-honest? This goes for both conservative and liberal causes.
“Your friends and neighbors, when they give you a check (for a political contribution), they also give you their name, their address and their occupation,” Ankney said. “No less should be asked from those that are from out of state and those who work in the shadows.”
In other words, this would treat those trying to influence Montana elections the same as it treats Montanans. What a concept.
So, let’s try this again: Ankney’s bill is simple. It demonstrates who has put their money where their mouth is — and how much.