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Montana 2021 Legislature

Bills To Remove Campaign Contribution Limits, Eliminate Top Political Cop Position Fail Ahead Of Transmittal Deadline

A screen grab of Derek Skees addressing the Montana House State Administration Committee at a hearing.
Montana Public Affairs
Montana Republican Rep. Derek Skees introduces House Bill 571 to the House State Administration Committee on Feb. 26, 2021.

Montana legislative committees took quick action on a flurry of impactful bills this week ahead of a key upcoming legislative deadline. One proposal in the House that likely won’t make it through the process would’ve let individuals and political action committees donate unlimited amounts of money to election candidates.

Kalispell Republican Rep. Derek Skees said House Bill 571 would’ve brought political contributions into the daylight by reducing incentive to funnel money through political action committees that don’t always have to disclose donors.

“So if you want an individual to put $5,000 dollars into your campaign you can, and where we’re going to get transparency is in the reporting," Skees said.

Under current state law, individuals and PACs can contribute $360 directly to a candidate for statewide office or $710 to a gubernatorial candidate each election.

The House State Administration Committee tabled HB 571 during the same meeting it was introduced, which is contrary to a legislative process that typically gives lawmakers and the public time to digest proposals before they’re advanced or killed.

Lawmakers also tabled a proposal to delay recreational marijuana legalization shortly after its hearing Friday, along with another bill from Skees that would’ve gotten rid of the state commissioner of political practices position.

Forsyth Republican Rep. Geraldine Custer’s comments on the latter bill illustrate the limited appetite for certain proposals.

"It needs gasoline and a match and a burning party in my opinion," Custer said.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, who enforces state campaign finance and lobbying laws, was among the four opponents of HB 571, involving campaign finance. No one testified in favor of the bill.

Mangan said Montanans approved state campaign finance limits with a 1994 initiative in order to keep a level playing field during campaign season.

Katjana Stutzer with the Montana Public Interest Research Group echoed that idea.

“We’re all aware of when copper kings were handing out cash to literally buy elections and Montanans said ‘This isn’t the way that we want to do things.’ And then passed some of the strictest laws in the nation," Stutzer said.

On Friday afternoon the Senate State Administration Committee held hearings on another round of bills from conservative lawmakers that would impact campaign finance laws and election procedures for minor parties.