State appeals donation ruling - Campaigns eye unlimited contributions — for now

2012-10-05T00:45:00Z State appeals donation ruling - Campaigns eye unlimited contributions — for nowBy Mike Dennison of The Standard State Bureau Montana Standard

HELENA — As state lawyers Thursday asked federal courts to temporarily block a ruling that wiped out Montana’s dollar-limits on campaign donations, at least one candidate was already telling donors they can contribute unlimited funds — for now.

The Lee Newspapers State Bureau obtained a recording of a voice-mail from state Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, in which he said donors have “a limited window” to make donations “for any amount, for any candidate.”

“Right now there are no campaign-finance limits, so if you know of anybody that can write checks, you might want to give them a call,” Edmunds said in the voice-mail on Wednesday.

Edmunds confirmed Thursday that he’s been calling potential Republican donors and fellow candidates to tell them about Wednesday’s court decision.

U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena on Wednesday struck down most of Montana’s limits on what people, political parties and political-action committees can give to state candidates in Montana, saying they are an unconstitutional violation of free-speech rights.

The decision voided limits put in place by voters in 1994. A coalition of individuals and business and Republican Party groups had filed suit to challenge the limits.

The state Justice Department asked Lovell late Wednesday and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday to stay or block the effect of the ruling, while the state appeals it to the Circuit Court.

Lovell gave the plaintiffs’ coalition until Monday to respond – thus leaving his ruling intact at least through the weekend, unless the 9th Circuit Court issues a stay.

Other candidates and Montana’s political parties had varied reactions Thursday to the ruling.

The state Democratic and Republican parties said they’ve informed candidates that the limits have been abolished for now, and that donors, if they choose, can make unlimited contributions to state candidates.

The Democratic Party, however, hopes that further legal action will restore the contribution limits, said party spokesman Chris Saeger.

“We cannot have limitless spending on elections in Montana,” added Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, a co-chair of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “This is absolutely insane, and I think every Democratic legislative candidate in the state knows that.”

Attorney General Steve Bullock, who’s running for governor and whose office is challenging Lovell’s ruling, said through a spokesman Thursday that he won’t accept donations above the old $630 limit, which was struck down.

Bullock, a Democrat, denounced the ruling on Wednesday as “destructive,” and said it “put Montana’s elections up for auction to the highest bidder.”

Rick Hill, Bullock’s Republican opponent in the governor’s race, is reviewing Lovell’s ruling and hasn’t decided whether it will accept contributions above the old limits, said campaign spokesman Brock Lowrance.

Lowrance said if Hill is elected governor, he’ll work with the 2013 Legislature to establish a “solution that is constitutional” on campaign donations and possible limits. Through early September, Bullock had raised $1.4 million in campaign funds and Hill $1.2 million.

Edmunds, the Missoula legislator, said he thinks the ruling makes sense, because it allows candidates who aren’t well-known to raise money more easily, from fewer donors.

“When you’re a new guy, a lot of people don’t think you’re going to win, and it’s hard to find people to support you,” he said Thursday. “Now, the people that you do find, they may be able to support you more, if they have no limits.”

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