During a Senate State Administration Committee meeting this week, a previously tabled bill that would exempt religious organizations from campaign reporting requirements found new life when it was inserted into a different measure two days prior to a key legislative deadline.

Senate Bill 162’s resuscitation happened in the space of 10 minutes during executive action on a different measure sponsored by Julie Dooling, R-Townsend.

Dooling’s proposal, House Bill 689, is related to SB 162 in that both address campaign finance reporting requirements, but committee Democrats expressed surprise at seeing campaign reporting exemptions for religious groups folded into a bill that’s primarily focused on oversight of MontPIRG, a University of Montana group oriented around civic engagement and issue advocacy.

Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, was the only committee member in the Senate State Administration Committee to offer substantive input on the amendment Wednesday. Bennett said his counterparts in the House State Administration Committee did the right thing by tabling SB 162, and that the committee’s decision to fold it into HB 689 added “insult to injury.”

“This language says that some out-of-state organization can come to Montana, start a 501(c)(3), say we’re a religious group, and spend unlimited amounts of money in our campaigns without having to report a dime. That’s the DNRC, that’s the RNC, that’s every dark money group under the sun,” Bennett said. “This is their secret pathway into being able to do whatever they want in our elections without having to disclose anything at all.”

The five Republican senators on the committee voted to incorporate the amendment into the bill and pass the measure. The committee’s three Democrats voted against the amendment and the measure. 

Friday is the last day for lawmakers to introduce amendments to non-revenue bills, so the committee’s decision to incorporate SB 162 into Dooling’s bill came just ahead of a key legislative deadline. 

SB 162 sponsor Sen. David Howard, R-Park City, requested the amendment. Howard has presented the issue as a matter of Montanans’ First Amendment rights to religious expression.

The Montana Nonprofit Association took issue with both the amendment to HB 689 and the process by which it was introduced. 

“The House Committee had already tabled [SB 162] and yet it was slipped in as an amendment to a different bill during executive action with no chance for public comment,” reads an email from MNA urging opposition to HB 689.

“If HB 689 passes as amended, Montana will become a mecca for dark money. Out of state nonprofits could easily be organized as religious organizations, collect unlimited unreported donations, and divert them to campaign activity with no transparency or accountability. The nonprofit reputation for serving communities rather than candidates will be drastically tarnished,” the email reads.

Dooling could not be reached by deadline Thursday evening for comment on her position on Howard’s amendment.

HB 689, which now acts as a carrier bill for SB 162, was drafted to mandate that any political organization with a budget over $5,000 that leases space from property owned by the state must prepare a report for Montana lawmakers outlining its expenditures and their purpose. Dooling said she sponsored the measure out of concern that the state is “subsidizing political activity.”

“It’s come to our attention that a student organization who leases property at UM and uses the University of Montana to collect fees from students [has] engaged in a number of statewide ballot measures,” Dooling said while introducing the bill Monday.This includes support for I-190, the marijuana legalization measure; I-186, the anti-mining initiative; and the Medicaid expansion referendum.”

MontPIRG Board Chair Anna Reely opposed HB 689, saying it “unfairly singles out our organization.” She argued that while the group engages in issue advocacy, it doesn’t endorse political candidates, and the student fee collected for the group is optional and costs the university nothing to administer.

HB 689 also repeals a section of state code that allows a person to file a statement with the Commissioner of Political Practices regarding the content of campaign broadcasting materials. Dooling said research has shown those reports aren’t filed, so she considers the measure a matter of code clean-up.

As of Thursday afternoon, HB 689, which has already passed through the House, has not yet been scheduled for debate and a vote in the Senate.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.