HELENA, — Gov. Steve Bullock unveiled bipartisan legislation Thursday aimed at shedding light on so-called "dark money" in politics — an issue that could split some Republican lawmakers.
Bullock and Republican state Sen. Jim Peterson said the "comprehensive" proposal will force groups that mention candidate names to disclose how they are spending money and where it comes from.
The measure was met with a cool response from Republican Sen. President Jeff Essmann of Billings, who said the "political theatre" of campaign finance is not a priority.
The issue has been a top priority for Bullock, who campaigned on the promise to better force disclosure on political money.
The governor said that state politics has been flooded by "nasty, shameful and misleading" attack ads from anonymous groups. He and Peterson said their proposal aims to rein in groups from both sides of the political spectrum.
The measure follows an election cycle where a group known as American Tradition Partnership made headlines with its battle to remain anonymous while it convinced federal courts to overturn some state campaign finance laws.
The proposal would make it clear that such groups are required under state law to disclose their election activity. They would also have to disclose top donors and the board of directors. The measure gets tougher on corporate and union expenditures.
The bill also increases candidate contribution limits, increasing the maximum individual or PAC contribution to a candidate for governor from $630 to $2,000. Some Republicans have sought the increase, arguing the candidates need more money to fight third-party groups. Backers of such an increase say it is better to direct political money into candidate accounts, and away from less accountable third-party groups.
The measure also affects large organizations or advocacy groups that may only spend a fraction of their budgets on such ads during an election year. Such groups would have to disclose donors over $2,000 and report expenditures on politicking, or set up PACs that face full disclosure of their political spending, according to the governor's office.
Bullock and Peterson said they believe there is a bipartisan group of legislators willing to force outside groups from both sides to disclose their efforts to lobby for and against candidates.
"I believe the majority of our Legislature feels this is the right thing to do, and we are going to find out," Peterson said.
During Bullock's State-of-the-State speech last month, he called for a crackdown on anonymous political money — which received a standing ovation from all Democrats and some Republicans.
Republicans are still torn after a GOP leadership battle between Essmann and Peterson. The conflict followed a series of primary challenges to some moderate Republicans who were hit with nasty attack mailers backed by anonymous money.
Essmann said he agreed the campaigns should be "more transparent, accountable, and fair," and said he is open to discussing the proposal. But he said other core budget issues are a higher priority.
"We need to remember Montanans sent us here to address real problems affecting their jobs and our state's economy," Essmann said. "Montanans didn't send us here so that politicians can focus on how they get elected to their job."