'Dark money’ disclosure proposal, church campaign bill collide, don't pass

2013-04-25T18:58:00Z 2013-04-25T19:25:39Z 'Dark money’ disclosure proposal, church campaign bill collide, don't pass missoulian.com

HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock’s last-ditch effort to pass disclosure requirements for political “dark money” in Montana failed this week, as Republican legislative leaders refused to allow a vote on a heavily amended bill enacting the new rules.

At the same time, the Bullock administration said the non-vote will cause the death of another aspect of the bill, which intended to clarify churches’ free-speech rights in the political arena.

The likely death of House Bill 217 prompted some finger-pointing this week on both sides of the issue.

Its sponsor – Rep. David Howard, R-Park City – said the Bullock administration misled him into thinking it supported his attempt to exempt churches from some campaign-reporting regulations.

Instead, the Bullock administration tried to use the bill to enact the dark-money restrictions, which undermined HB217’s original intent and will cause it to die, he said.

“I thought I was being treated in an honorable way; they were dishonorable,” he said.

But a Bullock administration attorney said Thursday that Howard’s exemption for churches wouldn’t work, and that the governor was trying to fix it – and enact the new campaign-money disclosure requirements that have wide public support.

“What is dishonorable is the failure to give those amendments a fair hearing, and to be accountable to the people of Montana, who have made clear they want an end to dark money in Montana elections,” said Andy Huff, chief legal counsel for the governor.

Huff said since the Legislature refused to consider the amended version of HB217, the original version returns to the governor – who will veto it, because it is “rife with problems, unworkable and does not protect churches.”

A veto effectively kills the bill.

Howard introduced HB217 in response to a 2009 federal court ruling that said a small East Helena church does not have to file a campaign-finance report detailing its minimal help for a 2004 ballot measure to ban gay marriage in Montana.

The court said Montana had engaged in “petty bureaucratic harassment” of the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church, and that such requirements violated the church’s right to free speech.

Howard’s original bill said any communication by any nonprofit religious organization, as defined by federal law, is not a political contribution, and therefore doesn’t have to be reported.

The Legislature passed HB217 and sent it to Bullock for his signature on April 9. Tens day later, Bullock sent it back to the Legislature with an amendatory veto, which was 18 pages long and included the new disclosure requirements for so-called “dark money.”

“Dark money” refers to money spent to influence elections by nonprofit groups, which don’t have to publicly report their spending or donors.

Bullock had supported a separate bill with the disclosure requirements, but Republicans in a House committee killed that bill April 15.

Bullock said his amendatory veto also fixed the problem with over-regulation of church speech on political issues. It amended the bill to say any communication by a “bona fide church” on a ballot issue, “made in the normal course of exercising its freedom of religious expression,” is not a campaign contribution.

But House and Senate Republican leaders, who opposed the disclosure requirements, did not allow a floor vote last week on the amended version of HB217 before the Legislature adjourned Wednesday.

The bill now returns to Bullock in its original form, for him to sign into law or veto.

Howard said Thursday the amendatory veto did not fix the problem for churches, because it still would have required them to report any activity on political issues if that activity exceeded $500 in value.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or by email at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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