HELENA — A pair of bills that would increase, or eliminate, Montana’s limits on campaign contributions drew plenty of fire Tuesday, as public-interest groups said it would “open the floodgates” to more money from deep-pocketed interests.
Yet the sponsor of one of the bills warned that if Montana doesn’t allow candidates to raise more money on their own, the state risks losing a lawsuit and having courts set or abolish the limits.
Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, said he agrees with opponents of his bill who believe “less money is better than more money” in politics, but that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that corporations and unions cannot be prohibited from spending to influence campaigns.
Candidates should be able to raise more money to counter outside spending by corporations, unions and other outside groups, so the state should allow political parties, corporations and individuals to give directly to candidates with few limits, he said. Those donations also will be disclosed, unlike the undisclosed “dark money” often spent by outside groups, he said.
“I’d like to level the playing field a little bit more,” he told the House State Administration Committee. “I think the only way to do that is opening up the campaigns to contributions.”
Opponents said allowing larger contributions to candidates is like “throwing gasoline on the fire,” and there are other ways to discourage or restrict spending on campaigns by outside groups.
Reichner is sponsoring House Bill 229, which would increase the maximum donations that individuals can give to state candidates, from governor on down to state legislator. The maximum donation for a gubernatorial candidate would go from $630 to $2,500 under his bill; for a Montana legislative candidate, it would increase from $160 to $500.
Reichner’s bill also would eliminate the cap on what political-action committees and political parties can give to candidates and allow corporations to give directly to candidates – although he said he expects to offer amendments that may enforce some PAC or party limits.
The committee also heard HB263 from Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, who is proposing only to increase the individual contribution limits. Fitzpatrick said he’d like to double the current amounts, to give candidates more artillery to fight back against outside spending.
“I want to take some of that money that’s flowing into third-party groups and direct it to the candidates,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m not going to pretend this is a perfect bill and will save us from all the ills that happen in our campaign, but it’s a good step.”
The two measures are the first of many expected bills before the 2013 Legislature to revise Montana’s campaign laws and address campaign spending, in the wake of court decisions that have opened the door to more campaign spending by outside, special-interest groups.
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena also struck down some of Montana’s contribution limits as too restrictive – although his decision has been put on hold while it’s appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Reichner said he has spoken with Gov. Steve Bullock’s office about HB229, and want to negotiate what might be an acceptable bill for the Democratic governor.
Kevin O’Brien, deputy chief of staff for Bullock, said Tuesday the governor is willing to work with lawmakers on a campaign-finance bill, but “does not believe that more money in the political sphere is a good thing.”
Opponents, which included Montana Common Cause, the Montana League of Women Voters and the Montana Public Interest Research Group, denounced Reichner’s bill, as introduced, as a complete reversal of decades of Montana law passed by voters to restrict corporate money and limit wealthy donors’ influence in campaigns.
“It’s an aggressive assault on fair elections in Montana,” said C.B. Pearson of Common Cause. “It will only produce an arms-race mentality, where more money coming from out-of-state will dominate.”