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Montana Awaits Campaign Finance Law Ruling from High Court

Montana’s century-old campaign finance law which bans direct corporate contributions is being held in abeyance pending U.S. Supreme Court action, throwing the door wide open for companies and labor unions to pour money into the state’s races.

Montana’s century-old campaign finance law which bans direct corporate contributions is being held in abeyance pending U.S. Supreme Court action, throwing the door wide open for companies and labor unions to pour money into the state’s races.

The hotly contested Montana Senate race between Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and  Republican Denny Rehberg already is attracting a fistful of corporate dollars, and local analysts say that some of those dollars also will soon be flowing into the governor’s race and other local races as well, including state legislators, particularly after the June primaries narrow those fields.

Part of the reason that corporations are so interested in Montana is because there are many mining and ranching companies there which could benefit from political decisions these candidates will be in a position to make. Outside political groups as well – especially the American Tradition Partnership (formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership) the group that originally filed suit against Montana’s election law – are gearing up to spend lots of money in the races.

But circumstances also could mitigate against millions coming into Montana from the outside – advertising media doesn’t cost much there and since Montana has had anti-corruption campaign laws in place since 1912, a huge influx of corporate money in state and local races probably would backfire.

"Campaign finance - that's not normally sexy, not normally something that drives voters," said Montana State political science professor David C.W. Parker. That said, Montana’s a state that’s had this long history of concern with outsiders – corporations, the federal government, outsiders in general and wanting to keep them out. There’s a concern with ‘big evil corporations’, ‘big evil government’ looking like they are trying to purchase or own the state,” he said.

But Donny Ferguson, spokesman for American Tradition Partnership, said the Montana law is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, is outdated and stems from political corruption a century ago.

“The only ones defending the unconstitutional law are the defenders of the ongoing corruption in Helena,” Ferguson said. A contribution limit of $160 is an unreasonable limit on a Montanan's right to speech. Other states have much higher limits, and their elected officials are much less corrupt than some we have seen in Montana.”

He pointed to the resignation of Dave Gallik, former head of the Political Practices Commission, which oversees campaign laws in the state, after allegations that he improperly conducted private business from his office. And he cited former Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch’s resignation after charges he broke the state’s nepotism laws.

But defenders of the law, including Attorney General Steve Bullock, a Democrat who is running for governor, say it helps prevent excess money from leading to corruption in the state.

“What this does is it drowns out the voices of Montanans," Bullock said when the lawsuit was filed against the law. "We have a long history of people being involved in the political system, and individuals matter. With unlimited contributions and very little disclosure, I think people are relegated to the back seat."

Parker says the outside money is poised to come in, now that the law is on hold. He said mining corporations have contributed heavily for Rehberg. In addition Americans for Prosperity, funded by the silver-rich Koch brothers, “is just the kind of group, given the stay (of the law) that will be putting money into the governor’s race and legislative races.”

The case dovetails with the federal “Citizens United” case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and labor unions have the right to contribute to political races directly from their treasuries without setting up Political Action Committees. With the Supreme Court putting the Montana case on hold until they decide whether to review it, the Montana case could directly impact that decision.

Paul Ryan, of the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center that studies campaign laws, said it is now “open season” in Montana for an influx of money attempting to woo state lawmakers with significant influence over access to the state’s resources, now is the time.

If you want to buy influence in the State of Montana with public officials, it’s a heck of a lot easier with the state Supreme Court decision on hold and the ability to spend money right out of corporate coffers on election ads.”


Elaine S. Povich is a GOVERNING contributor.
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