HELENA — The spokesman for Steve Bullock's campaign for governor doesn't work directly for him and is instead paid by the Montana Democratic Party — a practice recently clarified as perfectly legal by the commissioner of political practices despite bitter GOP criticism that it undermines donation limits.
Democrats say the May ruling, which declared that such sharing of staff is OK, only ratifies coordination that has always taken place and is necessary since the party and its staff only exist to help its candidates. The party is also paying the spokesman for attorney general candidate Pam Bucy.
Republicans counter that state law bans the practice of spending unlimited party money directly on candidates for a reason, and argue that shuffling staffer salaries from the candidate to the central party gets around these caps. The GOP says that using party money to pay staffers is a big advantage for campaigns that face stricter donation limits.
It is yet another campaign finance argument in an election cycle that has seen those battles in Montana reach the U.S. Supreme Court. In this one, however, there is a bit of role reversal.
Democratic candidates like Bullock, who have fought conservative-led efforts making it easier for big money to flow into elections, find themselves advancing a system that pays their staff with party money which can come in big chunks from corporate political action committees and others.
And Republicans, whose allies continue to argue in ongoing legal challenges for the dismantling of many state laws limiting donations and transparency, are in this instance saying more control is needed over campaign spending.
Those cases are playing out on a much larger stager and hinge around the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case that freed up the way corporations and unions can spend money in elections. That ruling was then used to toss out Montana's century-old ban on some corporate spending in state races, and is being used in an ongoing argument that donation limits and other campaign regulations need to be overturned.
In the May decision, Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murray wrote that paying staffers does not constitute a campaign donation to the candidate, which the GOP had argued it was.
GOP spokesman Chris Shipp said it is particularly ironic for Bullock, who has been arguing in court against allowing more corporate money in state politics, to use the central party to pay his staffers. The original complain that spawned the commissioner's ruling on the matter came from a GOP allegation that Bullock's 2008 campaign for attorney general wrongly used two staffers paid for by the party.
"He is talking about how he wants to see this transparency, but then he puts his campaign staffers behind this veil of another campaign committee," said spokesman Chris Shipp.
Montana Democrats presented evidence to the commissioner of political practices that the office has long held the view that salaries of staffers are exempt from the limits on coordinated spending.
'If you accept their argument, the party couldn't take calls from its candidates seeking advice," said Montana Democratic Party Spokesman Chris Saeger. "The bottom line is that, of course, political parties support their candidates."
Democrats also point out that Republicans have done something very similar in the past election cycle during which a political consulting group was hired and paid for by the Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee to do work for individual candidates — work the candidates did not pay for.