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Montanans were more vocal than ever about our elections this year, judging from the hundreds of letters and other comments that poured into The Billings Gazette.

Unfortunately, that vigorous statewide debate was often skewed by political spenders who aren’t even Montana residents.

The U.S. Senate race between Sen. Jon Tester and State Auditor Matt Rosendale drew tens of millions of dollars in outside spending — mostly for tailoring negative advertising to bash one candidate or the other.

For example, a week before the Nov. 6 election, Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Rick Breckenridge announced that he was withdrawing as a candidate and supporting Rosendale because of a mailing from an unidentified spender that seemed intent on taking votes from Rosendale.

Days earlier, many Montanans received a mailing riddled with incorrect and misleading information on absentee voting. That mailing from an out-of-state Republican organization could have cost Montanans their right to have their votes counted — if they had followed instructions that were contrary to Montana law.

A week before that, left-leaning out-of-state organizations mailed absentee ballot request forms to Montana voters, telling them that they had not yet requested absentee ballots. That caused considerable confusion for recipients who had already requested their ballots. County elections offices were deluged with calls from voters, some of whom received two or more of those mailings.

The most egregious example of out-of-state spending in our General Election was the campaign against Initiative 185. Proposed by Montana health care organizations, led by the Montana Hospital Association, I-185 would have raised taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, started taxing vaping items and directed the new revenue toward health care for Montana veterans, seniors and low-income individuals. The measure would have continued the Medicaid program that covers 96,000 adults and is set to expire next summer. By raising taxes on tobacco products, I-185 would have reduced the number of smokers in our state, and stopped more young people from starting an unhealthy habit by making it more expensive.

The manufacturers of Camel and Marlboro cigarettes spent in excess of $17 million to defeat I-185. Big Tobacco succeeded in misleading voters through a campaign committee called Montanans Against Tax Hikes. To be accurate, the committee should have been called: Big Tobacco against Tobacco Tax Hikes.

Supreme Court rules

Until several years ago, Montana prohibited such corporate spending in our elections. In 1912, Montana voters enacted the Corrupt Practices Act, banning direct corporate contributions to state elections. The people acted to take control of elections that had been marred for decades by bribery in a state largely controlled by the Anaconda Copper Co.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizen United v. Federal Elections Commission struck down a federal law limiting corporate elections spending. Within months, proponents of moneyed interests sued to overturn Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Montana law, too.

The Supreme Court justices appointed by President Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavenaugh, support unlimited campaign spending, so the court now more heavily favors corporations.

Besieged with unlimited outside spending, Montanans still have the right to know who is spending how much.

In 2015, Gov. Steve Bullock and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, enacted the Disclose Act that requires political candidates and other campaign spenders to disclose the sources and uses of campaign cash and cleared the way for searchable online reports.

Support Montana’s COPP

In our state, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan is the public’s campaign watchdog. Confirmed by the state Senate and appointed by Bullock, Mangan and his hard-working staff of six receive and post campaign finance reports for state, district and local candidates, along with reports from committees spending for and against ballot issues and candidates. The COPP investigates complaints of state campaign finance violations. This small office makes information available quickly to citizens so we can know the sources of political spending.

In past legislatures, the COPP has been targeted for budget cuts by lawmakers who disagreed with something the commissioner did. In recent sessions, some lawmakers have sought to severely restrict the independent commissioner’s authority to enforce campaign laws.

We call on Republicans and Democrats serving in 2019 to support the COPP as a neutral referee. The COPP must have the authority, the staff and funding to do the vital work of keeping Montana elections fair and campaign spending transparent.

Lawmakers who care about the integrity of Montana elections should vote in the 2019 session to ensure that Mangan can keep doing his job effectively for the citizens of this great state.

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