HELENA – The House, on a mostly party-line vote Monday, approved a major Republican bill to overhaul Montana campaign finance laws by increasing the amount of allowable contributions made directly to candidates.
House Bill 229 by Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, passed 58-42. All but three House Republicans voted for it, while all Democrats opposed it. The bill faces a final vote this week before heading to the Senate for consideration there.
Reichner said campaign finance reform is needed because outside, special interest groups are attracting most of the campaign money – which isn’t traceable – instead of the actual candidates, who must report where their money comes from.
Reichner’s bill also would allow political parties to give unlimited funds to candidates and remove the limit on the aggregate total of what political action committees can give to candidates for state office.
Leading the Democratic opposition to the bill was Rep. Bryce Bennett of Missoula, who predicted that HB229 would result in more money going into politics in Montana – not less – and lead to more political advertising.
“This bill is about fueling money into our PACs and into our parties,” Bennett said. “The issue is not that our limits are too low. This is a bad bill. This is a bill that tells folks that money is the answer to all of our problems. ...”
“It’s exactly what our constituents have told us they don’t want.”
Reichner said outside groups raised six times the money in the governor’s race as did the Democratic and Republican nominees, Gov. Steve Bullock and former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill.
“What is happening is the campaigns can’t control their messages,” he said.
Money flowing into these third-party groups is “dark money,” whose donors cannot be tracked by the public, Reichner said.
HB229 bill would increase to $2,500 the maximum donation individuals can give to a candidate for governor – the same amount people can donate to a candidate for a president or U.S. Senate or House candidate. The current limit for governor is $630.
The new contribution limits for other statewide offices would be $1,000 per donor, and $500 for someone running for the Legislature and other state district races.
Reichner said his bill allows political parties to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates, as many states allow, and that donors of that money must be publicly reported.
The bill also removes the aggregate amount of money that special interest political action committees, or PACs, can give to candidates for state office.
Reichner said that regardless of whether people like money going into campaigns, “it’s going to happen.”
“People want to donate to the campaigns, but unfortunately they’re limited,” he said.
The Bigfork legislator said his bill isn’t a “perfect solution” but is an improvement over current law.
The three Republicans who voted against the bill were Rep. Steve Gibson of East Helena, Jesse O’Hara of Great Falls and Nicholas Schwaderer of Superior.