Bipartisan 'dark money' bill reaches Mont. panel

Matt Gouras, Associated Press
March 15, 2013
Bipartisan 'dark money' bill reaches Mont. panel

Republican State Sen. Jim Peterson discusses the plan he wrote with the governor to shed light on so-called "dark money" in politics at committee hearing on Thursday, March 14, 2013 in Helena, Mont. (AP Photo/Matt Gouras)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Bipartisan foes of the so-called dark money behind many political attack ads ran into some opposition Thursday as they try to shepherd a lengthy reform proposal though the Legislature.

Republican state Sen. Jim Peterson and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock are teaming up on the measure that aims to force more disclosure about third-party money in politics. Their bill had its first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

State Sen. Art Wittich, of Bozeman, a key GOP Senate leader, used the hearing to criticize the measure as complex and confusing.

Other Republican leaders have derisively referred to the measure as political theatre.

The reform effort comes after some Republicans were attacked in primaries last year as too liberal by anonymous conservative groups.

Others Republicans benefited from the outside money, and the division has spilled over into contentious GOP legislative leadership elections.

Bullock has made passage of the bill a priority after an election cycle that saw a proliferation of third-party spending and the high-profile case of one such group that refused to disclose its donors.

Advocates of campaign finance reform lauded Bullock last year when he was attorney general for defending the state's campaign finance laws from legal challenge, and for pursuing sanctions against American Tradition Partnership as it battled to keep its donors anonymous.

But some of those advocates are now criticizing Bullock's signature campaign finance reform bill for allowing candidates to raise more money. The measure would almost double the limit for individual donations, while allowing more political party donations to races.

"By raising limits we are rewarding those who have a lot of money," said C.B. Pearson of Montana Common Cause.

More money directed to campaigns doesn't solve the problem, he said.

Supporters of the reform measure counter that it is necessary to help channel political money through well-known groups that fully disclose finances, and to force candidates to take responsibility for the money and speech.

The bill focuses on efforts to force disclosure of third-party groups. It also makes it clear — similar to the state's arguments against American Tradition Partnership in court — that a nonprofit status and claims of being an educational organization do not protect a group from disclosure requirements.

The measure also places stiffer requirements on corporations and unions, and increases penalties for noncompliance to help fund enforcement efforts.

Peterson said the bill would eliminate dark money that has flooded mailboxes with attack mailers from groups with fuzzy names and little accountability.

"I think all of us, if we were honest, we would all admit to activities that weren't in the sunshine as much as they need to be," Peterson said. "People are tired of the old style of politics."