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Montana bill seeks cash to fight 'dark money'

HELENA — A Republican lawmaker is arguing it will take more money — not less — in politics to beat back the tidal wave of so-called dark money.

Rep. Scott Reichner, of Bigfork, wants to increase the donation limits candidates can receive from various sources, for instance individuals could give $2,500 instead of $500 to a candidate for governor. There would be no limit on the amount of money political party or action committees could contribute.

The Republican argues that the increase makes sense since the donations would all be publicly disclosed and will help the candidates compete with anonymous third-party spending.

Reichner takes the proposal to the House State Administration Committee on Tuesday.

It will face stiff opposition from those who argue more restrictions are needed to rein in political spending.

The proposal follows a turbulent election year that saw a flood of third-party spending in Montana politics, along with high-profile court battles over campaign cash. It comes as a federal appeals court reviews a judge's ruling that the state's limits are unconstitutionally low and prevent effective campaigning.

That decision from U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell — less than a month before the election — opened the door for unlimited donations before the appeals court suspended the ruling until it could be reviewed. It led to one of the biggest stories in the governor's race when Steve Bullock sued Republican Rick Hill for taking a $500,000 donation from the Republican Party, far above the state's disputed cap of $22,600 on party donations.

Reichner helped Hill out on his campaign but said his proposal to increase contribution limits is not driven by the brouhaha over the donation.

Reichner said he saw firsthand how third-party spending on advertising swamped the candidates in a sea of messages they didn't have the resources to beat back. By law, independent groups can't coordinate their messaging with the candidate they are trying to help.

"When that happens, you really aren't in control of your messaging anymore," Reichner said. "What I am trying to do is level the playing field here for the candidates."

Reichner said the state's low limits on individual donors send those people who want to help out to the "dark money" groups that can take unlimited amounts. Reichner also wants to lift restrictions on corporate and union donations, but said he is open to changes on any aspects of the bill because he hopes to ultimately get the support of democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

"It will be fair for both political parties," Reichner said.

Opponents are aghast.

"This is so contrary to what Montanans want," said C. B. Pearson, with the group that last year backed a ballot measure aimed at undermining court decisions in favor of corporate spending in politics. "Voters want less money in politics — not more."

Pearson said Reichner's proposal takes Montana back 40 years to a world of campaign finance where big money would get more access — and influence — with politicians.

"The real shockers is he is removing all the restrictions on political action committee limits and political parties. This is the craziest thing I have seen in 30 years of working on campaign finance issues," Pearson said. "We don't need more gas on the fire, we need to find out what us causing the fire and extinguish it."

The third-party attack spending by groups such as Western Tradition Partnership, whose primary attacks helped fuel a war within the Senate Republican caucus, is promising to lead to more legislation.

The group is hoping for bipartisan legislation that forces more disclosure by such groups.

One pending proposal from Republican Rep. Rob Cook, of Conrad, would require such advertising to include a disclaimer that it was paid for by anonymous political money. He is also proposing another bill that would try to force more disclosure of donors to such groups.


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