Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, left, questions Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, during Thursday’s lengthy Montana House debate on a major overhaul of campaign finance reporting in Montana.

HELENA – After a two-hour debate and a torrent of attempted amendments, the Montana House on Thursday narrowly endorsed a key bill to require so-called “dark money” political groups to disclose their donors and how they spend their money in campaigns.

A coalition of all 41 Democrats and 10 moderate Republicans combined to pass Senate Bill 289 by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, 51-49. The bill faces a final House vote later.

The same coalition of all Democrats and some moderate Republicans, sometimes gaining and at other times losing Republicans, beat back 15 out of 16 amendments offered by other Republicans seeking to change the bill. The group agreed to only one amendment from by moderate Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad.

SB289 is considered one of the major bills of the session in a state where dark money, or anonymous money, has been spent starting in primary elections in 2008. The influx of dark money stepped up considerably after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unrestricted amounts from their treasuries on independent expenditures in political races.

The bill is a top priority of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who teamed up with Ankney on it.

Ankney watched the debate from the House sidelines. Afterward, he praised those voting for it, particularly Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, the House floor sponsor who led the opposition to all the amendments.

“There was a lot of good persons who held together and did what’s right for the people of Montana,” Ankney said.

In his closing speech, Garner said, “This is not an easy thing to do to stand up in front of my caucus in disagreement with some of the people who I have such great respect for, but I believe this is right.”

He said the bill would make Montana elections fairer and more transparent and “provide a place full of light where darkness dare not tread.”

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, said, “I think this is about brute political force.”

It was a reference to the bill and the method that Democrats and the moderate Republicans used to send the bill to House Business and Labor Committee instead of the House State Administration Committee, where election bills are normally assigned. Then earlier this week, the same coalition blasted SB289 out of committee before it acted on it and sent the measure directly to the floor.

“I think what this bill is about and what this amendment is about is it’s about hurt feelings and elections,” Wittich said. “This bill is about increasing regulations and targeting a few by the governor and a few Republicans. The worm will turn.”

Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, proposed many of the amendments, but none passed.

“I can go home and tell my constituents I tried to make a bill much better,” he said. “I don’t think it goes far enough.”

Hertz said the bill will do nothing about the many millions of dollars that will flow into Montana in future U.S. Senate races.

Some Republicans predicted SB289, or at least parts of it, would be struck down in court.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, called it ironic that Bullock is out raising undisclosed corporate money as chair of the Democratic Governors Association.

“It brings to mind the word ‘hypocrite,’ ” Tschida said of Bullock.

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House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, urged representatives to vote for SB289.

“I think this bill truly turns out to be one of the most important bills of our age,” Hunter said. “I think it affects a lot of things in democracy. ...  It was 100 years when the copper kings were using their money and influence to color our elections.”

He called the bill important to candidates and important to voters, adding: “I think ultimately it’s important to democracy.”

Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said, “If somebody’s shooting at you, you deserve to know who’s holding the gun.”

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, did not speak on the bill during the debate.

But a meeting of House Republicans before the debate, Knudsen urged them to vote against the bill, saying GOP leadership adamantly opposed it.

“You’re dealing with a bill that was primarily drafted by the governor’s office and the commissioner of political practices,” he said. “I feel this bill is nothing less than undermining the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

Republicans who joined Democrats and voted for the SB289 were Reps. Tom Berry of Roundup, Christy Clark of Choteau, Rob Cook of Conrad, Geraldine Custer of Forsyth, Garner, Roy Hollandsworth of Brady, Tom Richmond of Billings, Daniel Salomon of Ronan, Ray Shaw of Sheridan and Jeff Welborn of Dillon.

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