The House State Administration Committee on Wednesday approved House Bill 412, a bill sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, that expands an existing prohibition on the use of public time or resources for solicitation of political campaign support to apply to legislators and judges.
Current state law prohibiting such campaigning specifies its application only to a “public officer or public employee.”
The committee passed the bill 11-7. It will now head to the full House for consideration.
“As a matter of general principle, I have a hard time reading statute and seeing certain government officials carved out,” Bedey testified during the bill’s hearing Tuesday. “All of us in public office, no matter how we got there, should be held to a high standard.”
“The intent of the bill really is geared toward keeping public money out of political campaigns,” Bedey said Tuesday.
Asked by Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billings, to cite specific examples justifying the proposal, Bedey pointed to instances in which lawmakers have used their official state letterhead to advocate for a particular candidate or a bond issue. He did not refer to any legislators by name.
“I was informed that sorry, legislators can do this,” Bedey said. “But if it had been a county commissioner doing this, they would have been in trouble.”
Last year, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, wrote to campaign donors of a candidate Manzella opposed in a Ravalli County legislative primary, now-Rep. Wayne Rusk, R-Corvallis, on her Senate letterhead explaining her support for Rusk’s opponent, Alan Lackey. Her letter generated a letters-to-the-editor exchange in which former Republican lawmaker Ed Greef accused her of ethical impropriety.
Manzella, in her own letter, wrote, “if I want to use my stationery and postage to write a personal letter expressing my support, that too, is my choice.”
In response, Greef wrote, “it’s a lucky thing” that ethics statute “does not cover legislators — a loophole that cries out to be plugged.”
Bedey said his bill would work in conjunction with existing disciplinary venues for the two new classes it proposes adding to ethics statute: lawmakers and judges. Under the bill, violations by legislators would be referred to the House or Senate ethics committee, while infractions by judges would fall under the purview of the Judicial Standards Commission. Violations by other public officials or employees would fall to the Commissioner of Political Practices, which has the power to refer cases to local county attorneys.
Montana Judges Association lobbyist Bruce Spencer appeared at Tuesday’s hearing in support of the proposal, primarily because it respects the Judicial Standards Commission’s role in evaluating claims of judicial misconduct, he said.
Some lawmakers on the committee expressed concern that the revised statute might penalize them for otherwise routine communications with constituents.
“Say I’m listening to you in one ear and reading my emails in another,” posed Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, who voted against the bill Wednesday. “Somebody writes me and says, ‘This ballot initiative that’s coming, this candidate, I’ve got concerns,’ and I write back, while I’m here, as a legislator, and I say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, that’s a terrible ballot initiative or a terrible candidate.’ I’ve used public time, I’ve used the internet the state is providing for me. Would I be in violation?”
Bedey responded that Stafman’s hypothetical describes an issue that officials covered under current statute already have to navigate, and that he hasn’t seen any related prosecutions.
“When I see the term ‘solicitation,’ that connotes to me that I am actively engaged with some activity with a political committee,” Bedey said. “I think there’s a distinction between that and casual conversations with your constituents.”
But Stafman on Wednesday said he didn’t find that answer satisfactory. He appreciates the bill’s intent, he said, but would be more comfortable if it didn’t apply to legislators.
“While we’re trying to do good here, and the goals are admirable, I think this catches us up in challenges that we don’t want to be caught up in,” he said. “If it did not include legislators I may feel very differently about it.”
Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, asked Bedey Tuesday if his bill considered the use of polling on specific pieces of legislation by the Montana Judges Association, a flashpoint in a broader conflict last session between Republican lawmakers and the judiciary. Bedey said he didn’t think his bill addresses that issue, and that to the extent that polling was questionable, it should be examined by the Judicial Standards Commission.
“This is an equal opportunity bill,” he said. “This is not targeted at the judiciary. This is not targeted at the Legislature. It’s targeted at we’re all public officials, we all should be held to the same standard.”
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