WASHINGTON -- The Montana legislature passed sweeping campaign finance legislation on Wednesday that will require the disclosure of all donors to any independent group spending money on state-level elections.
The bipartisan Montana Disclose Act will effectively end the flood of “dark money” -- electoral spending by nonprofit groups that do not disclose their donors -- that has plagued recent Montana elections.
“Montana elections are about to become the most transparent in the nation, requiring those trying to influence our elections to come out of the dark money shadows,” Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who plans to sign the bill, said in a statement. “Our elections should be decided by Montanans, not shadowy dark money groups.”
The bill will require all groups, no matter their tax status, to disclose their donors if they spend money on electoral communications either targeting or mentioning a candidate within 60 days of an election.
“What Montana shows is that the issue of money in politics is really only a partisan issue in Washington, D.C.,” Adam Smith, spokesman for the campaign finance reform group Every Voice, said. “People can come together -- Republicans and Democrats -- and pass real effective reforms of the system.”
The path to dark money disclosure in Montana began in 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission that nonprofit groups could spend corporate funds on advertising close to an election that mentions a candidate, but does not call for their election or defeat. The ruling was a precursor to the 2010 Citizens United decision that openly freed corporations to spend money on elections.
The 2007 ruling spurred the creation of nonprofits that accept corporate money and play a role in federal and state politics. In Montana, Western Tradition Partnership, a Colorado-based anti-environmental group, took center stage.
Western Tradition Partnership (which would change its name to American Tradition Partnership in 2010) began spending money in Montana elections, largely in Republican primaries, in 2008 and continued to spend into the 2010 and 2012 campaigns.
After complaints and investigations by public officials, a box of the group’s stolen documents turned up in a meth house in Colorado. The documents, as reported by ProPublica and PBS’s Frontline, revealed an extensive effort to illegally coordinate with candidates in Montana and Colorado elections.
The revelation sparked an investigation in Montana, where the group was found to have violated election laws, and an outcry from politicians. The state legislature debated a bipartisan bill introduced by Republican state Sen. Jim Peterson to end dark money in state elections in 2013. That bill failed.
After winning the 2012 gubernatorial election, Bullock made disclosure legislation a priority. He had fought with Western Tradition Partnership in his previous post as attorney general. The group had challenged the state’s centuries-old ban on corporate money in elections after Citizens United opened the door to corporate electoral spending, and Bullock fought back.
The state ban on corporate election spending was enacted after the mining magnates known as the “Copper Kings” spent freely from their corporate coffers to buy and sell political offices. Bullock argued that the state’s unique history of corporate corruption should override the Supreme Court’s determination in Citizens United. The top court in Montana agreed, but the Supreme Court sided with Western Tradition Partnership, ending the state’s century-old ban on corporate political spending.
In early 2015, Bullock teamed up with Republican state Sen. Duane Ankney to introduce Montana Disclose Act. The bill passed the Senate on the first try and went to the House, where a bipartisan majority of 41 Democrats and 10 Republicans passed it 51-48. The bill was sent to the governor’s desk on Wednesday.
The bill overcame opposition from the National Rifle Association and Americans for Prosperity, the main political vehicle of the billionaire Koch brothers.
Montana is the second state, after California, to enact dark money disclosure laws. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman imposed similar disclosure rules through regulatory action.