HELENA (AP) — The Montana House endorsed a measure Thursday that would raise campaign contribution limits for state candidates and change how the commissioner of political practices enforces campaign violations.
The bill passed an initial vote 54-46 Thursday and must pass a final vote before it goes to Gov. Steve Bullock, who has not said whether he would sign it.
“Anything that passes the House, I don’t want it to impede the effectiveness and the abilities of the commissioner of political practices, but I’ll take a close look at it if it gets to my desk,” Bullock said.
The commissioner of political practices oversees and enforces the state’s campaign, lobbying and ethics rules.
On Tuesday, the House rejected the same measure 50-50, but Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton led a successful effort to bring it back to the floor for another vote.
“It brings transparency for all of us, it brings accountability for C.O.P.P.,” she said. “It gives us a preliminary opportunity to address any campaign violations that we may not be aware that we’re making and it aligns us constitutionally.”
Manzella was referring to a lawsuit challenging Montana’s campaign contribution limits as so low that they violate First Amendment free-speech rights.
A decision in that case is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and outgoing Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl has cautioned lawmakers that raising the limits now could affect the outcome.
The bill would also add an outside mediator to review campaign violation decisions by the commissioner and give the attorney general oversight of campaign violation prosecutions that go to court, instead of the commissioner.
Rather than increase transparency and accountability, as Manzella said those provisions would do, it would decrease the commissioner’s independent authority and undermine campaign disclosure reforms passed in 2015, Motl and Democratic lawmakers argued.
“I feel that any bill that is going to put more money into the process and have less transparency is a disservice to the people of Montana,” said Rep. Zac Perry, D-Hungry Horse.
The vote came hours before the Senate confirmed the next commissioner of political practices, former Democratic state legislator Jeff Mangan of Great Falls.
AP writer Matt Volz