The Senate State Administration Committee heard testimony Friday afternoon on a pair of bills that would relax state campaign finance laws and allow political candidates to carry personal loan debt from primary contests into their general election campaigns. Both bills are being carried by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls.

The committee started with Senate Bill 224, which Fitzpatrick said is designed to get rid of the “nitpicky things that we’ve all grown to hate in our campaign finance system.” To that end, Fitzpatrick proposes to exempt the use of personal property for fundraising or political events from disclosure requirements, and raise the disclosure threshold for individual contributions from $35 to $50. SB 224 also narrows the type of information that the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices can request from candidates and political committees.

Fitzpatrick emphasized that he doesn’t have a problem with disclosure. However, he believes that the level of detail necessary to complete campaign finance reports risks turning those forms into “traps for fines.” It’s not hard to find errors that could trigger a campaign practice complaint these days, he continued, thanks to the state’s many disclosure rules.

“I remember when I first started [in politics], we would say what the purpose of the expenditure was,” said Fitzpatrick, who started his legislative career in 2011. “Now we’re reporting quantities of stamps and number of signposts. I had to disclose the content of my mailers. I mean, this is just getting out of control.”

Perhaps the biggest change in SB 224 is a repeal of Montana’s cap on candidate contributions from political committees. Candidates for the state Senate can currently accept no more than $3,050 in total contributions from a PAC per election. The limit for state House candidates is $1,850. Fitzpatrick argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that aggregate contribution limits are unconstitutional, and said it’s only a matter of time before Montana’s limit gets challenged. Repealing it now, he said, could save the state the cost of that litigation.

The other bill Fitzpatrick introduced — Senate Bill 226 — would eliminate an existing requirement that political candidates repay personal loans made to their primary campaign prior to rolling remaining primary funds into their general campaign. The change would effectively allow candidates to carry primary debt into the general election.

“The purpose of campaign disclosure, campaign regulation, is to serve the public interest. Bills like this ignore the public interest and serve the private interest.”

former Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl

Neither bill attracted any proponents Friday. Margaret Bentwood with the League of Women Voters testified against SB 224, saying the measure would have the effect of “injecting big money, big spending, in legislative campaigns and reducing the importance of individual donations to campaigns.” Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan and his office’s chief legal counsel, Jaime MacNaughton, spoke in opposition to both bills. Mangan took issue with Fitzpatrick’s characterization that the COPP has heightened its disclosure requirements in recent years.

“We’ve been working on the rules that were submitted and worked through once the Disclose Act was passed in 2015, and we have not added any new rules in,” Mangan said.

The introduction of SB 224 and 226 was enough to draw the attention of former Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, who has refrained from making any public statements about policy proposals so far this session. In a letter submitted to the committee Friday and shared with Montana Free Press, Motl urged lawmakers to reject both bills. He did agree that a provision eliminating naming and labeling requirements for PACs made sense, as those requirements were recently ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. 

But, Motl wrote, the elimination of aggregate PAC contributions would harm Montana citizens, and only advance the interests of “elected legislators and the political committees seeking to give them money.” Motl added that limiting the investigative power of the COPP would be “the height of folly and against the public interest.”

“The purpose of campaign disclosure, campaign regulation, is to serve the public interest,” Motl told MTFP this afternoon. “Bills like this ignore the public interest and serve the private interest.”

The Senate State Administration Committee did not immediately take action on SB 224 or SB 226.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.