HELENA — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has vetoed a bill that would have raised the amount of money that could be contributed to political campaigns and changed operations within the office of the state’s campaign finance watchdog.
The bill, carried by Rep. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, would have increased the amount of money that could be spent by political committees, political parties and individuals on campaigns, in some cases by more than double.
In his veto, Bullock wrote the changes in the bill would “completely undermine the effectiveness (of the Commissioner of Political Practices) and the increase in contribution limits are far above what Montanans believe to be acceptable.”
“Due to the Montana Disclose Act and the significant efforts of the (Commissioner of Political Practices) over the course of the last two years, our 2016 elections were among the most transparent and cleanest on records,” Bullock wrote in his veto. The bill “is a palpably political effort to undo this process.”
The Disclose Act was passed by the 2015 Legislature and was meant to shine a light on so-called “dark money” spent in the state’s elections.
Montana has put a limit on what can be contributed in state elections, dating back to a 1994 ballot initiative that set limits. But the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 upended that, saying corporations could spend an unlimited amount in campaigns.
The state law was challenged in 2012 and 2016. In 2012, the state was left briefly without contribution limits, while in 2016 the limits were increased three weeks before the November election.
The bill Bullock vetoed would have also have prohibited the Commissioner of Political Practices from filing criminal cases against candidates and moved complaints from the commissioner’s office to the court of the defendant’s residence instead of Lewis and Clark County.
Under current practice, when the commissioner finds fault in the campaign finance practices of a candidate, the commissioner seeks a resolution directly with the candidate. If one cannot be reached, a case is filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court in Helena, where the commissioner’s office is.
The bill, which was at one point considered dead after failing to pass the House on a 50-50 vote and was revived by Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Darby, would have also required mediation instead of a court proceeding, something Bullock in his veto called “costly.”
“On-demand mediation could be exploited to delay and increase the costs of enforcement by those individuals who wish to operate in violation of the law for as long as possible,” Bullock said.
The previous commissioner, Jonathan Motl, testified at the Legislature that the bill would have reduced the office’s ability to enforce the state’s campaign finance laws. Former legislator Jeff Mangan took over the office on Monday.
Some more conservative Republicans tried to label Motl as biased against members of their party, though records of Motl’s findings show he did not target one party more than another.