Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that money spent on elections is speech protected by the First Amendment, Montana elections have been awash in unprecedented campaign cash. “Independent” expenditures not made by a candidate or his political party have dwarfed traditional campaign spenders.
Montana elections are targeted by tax-exempt “educational” entities that spend on elections. This “dark money” from groups that don’t have to disclose their donors puts endlessly, annoying attack ads on TV and in our mailboxes.
With virtually no limit on independent spending, the only check on money in campaigns is transparency. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that requiring disclosure of campaign finance is constitutional. Montana lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock enacted the Disclose Act in 2015 to shine a light on these new efforts to influence our elections.
Bullock turned up the light on political spending this month when he signed an executive order that requires companies bidding for state contracts to disclose their campaign spending. Executive Order 15-2018 expands the disclosure requirements in Montana statutes in important ways:
Starting Oct. 1, prospective state contractors must submit information on any spending that “pays for electioneering communication or that makes contributions, transfers or expenditures to another entity, regardless of its tax status, that pays for electioneering communications.”
The order applies to election spending regardless of how many times the money changes hands en route to election communication and regardless of whether it actually goes to a candidate’s treasury.
Bullock’s order is limited to contracts costing taxpayers more than $50,000 for goods or $25,000 for services, and applies when a bidder has contributed at least $2,500 to election spending within 24 months of bidding.
The executive order stipulates that the state cannot discriminate against a bidder because of any contribution disclosed. However, bids can’t be considered unless the disclosure is made or the bidder certifies that no disclosure is required under this order.
“We won’t pass judgment on how these companies are spending or tell anyone they can’t spend in our elections,” Bullock wrote after signing the order on June 8. “We’re saying, ‘If you want to do business with the public, disclose what you’re doing to influence our elections.’ Those disclosures will be available for everyone to see, and as citizens of Montana, we deserve that.”
“Where Citizens United opened the door for a wave of dark money, Montana is again shining a light. Montana is standing up for openness and fairness in politics,” Bullock said.
Bullock's chief legal counsel, Raphael Graybill, estimated that the new requirement would apply to between 500 and 600 contracts a year, according to the Associated Press.
Bullock’s disclosure order probably is a first in the nation. Other states require contractors to disclose their political contributions, but researchers at the Helena-based National Institute on Money in Politics told The Billings Gazette they were unaware of any other state that requires disclosure of contractors’ contributions to dark money groups. About half of the states require some type of campaign contribution disclosures of state contractors, as do some cities such as Los Angeles and New York. California and Rhode Island require dark money groups to disclose their spending, but they don’t mandate bidders on state contracts to disclose donations to groups that funnel money to “electioneering communication.”
Montana’s Constitution guarantees us the right to know about our government. We should know if and how much businesses getting state money have contributed to influence elections for state officials or ballot issues. If the bidder channeled money to a group supporting Bullock, we should know. If the bidder donated to a group backing or opposing a ballot issue, we should know.
Thanks to Bullock for getting ahead of the curve and giving Montanans the opportunity to better know who is spending how much to sway our state elections.