SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer
HELENA The first of a handful of bills shedding light on unregulated “constituency accounts,” which allow elected officials to solicit and spend money any way they want, was endorsed Saturday by the Montana House. The bill by Rep. Diane Sands, Dmissoula, would monitor the accounts like campaign accounts, requiring donations and expenditures to be reported and banning contributions from corporations. Changes added Saturday would also restrict donations to $135. The measure won initial approval, 63-37, and was sent to the House Appropriations Committee for further review. It is one of five bills addressing the accounts this session. One by Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish, has already been tabled, and three others have been heard in committee but not yet voted on. Supporters argued that regulating constituency accounts would assure the public that elected officials aren’t doing anything wrong with them. “I don’t like the idea that people are thinking this is a slush fund and we might be doing something hanky-panky with these funds,” Sands said. “I don’t think that’s true, but I do think there’s a lot of confusion out there about them.” At present there are no state laws that deal with such accounts and no oversight or disclosure requirements. The accounts began years ago as a place for elected officials to put excess campaign donations, with the idea that the money could generally be used for constituency services. Over the years, with almost no oversight, they have turned into a fund that elected leaders can use for almost any purpose. Rep. Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman, said he’s used money from his account to send newsletters to constituents and pay for radio ads encouraging safe driving habits. He opposed the cap on donations, arguing the limits would restrict lawmakers’ ability to communicate with their constituents. “I hope we’re not so cynical as to think constituency accounts are just thinly shrouded political accounts or campaign accounts,” Koopman said. “I don’t believe that’s the case.” Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Attorney General Mike McGrath both have said something needs to be done with constituency accounts, and a presession survey of lawmakers by The Associated Press showed most agreed the accounts need to be addressed. Officials say they have mostly used money in the accounts on constituent services, travel for some events, Christmas cards and other expenses. The bill is House Bill 462.