As the bill to increase the tax on aviation fuel moved through the Montana Legislature, it did so accompanied by a barrage of online efforts on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram opposing it.
The ads were paid for by the Airlines for America organization, which also funded a lobbyist for $20,000, as reported during the session.
The lobbying report filed with the state Commissioner of Political Practices does not list any of the costs associated with the ads on social media, as they were written in a way that keeps them from falling under Montana's lobbying laws because the language targets the public, not legislators or the Legislature specifically. It's a common feature of grassroots lobbying, a way of making a point during the legislative session that's becoming more and more common.
For example, if a tweet told people to contact a legislator about supporting or opposing a specific issue and tagged that legislator's social media account or was used to directly communicate with that legislator, it would count as lobbying because it would be a paid communication to promote or oppose legislation before the Legislature or lawmaker. But if the tweet was targeted at the general public and not the Legislature or a lawmaker, it would not be defined as lobbying.
One of the Airlines for America ads read: "House Bill 661 is bad for Montana," and told people who view it to "Learn why HB661 is bad for MT."
The ads encouraged people to "take action" and "tweet now," but did not mention the Legislature or lawmakers.
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As grassroots lobbying grows and changes with the increased reliance on social media to reach people, Montana's laws are starting to look out of date.
“There’s this whole spectrum that’s brand-new that we have to keep an eye on with basically antiquated statutes,” said Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan before the end of the session.
The last major change to lobbying laws was in 2002, and Mangan said every commissioner since then has asked the Legislature to take a look at Montana's statutes. Mangan said this year he hoped for a study resolution to look at grassroots lobbying laws, but it got no traction.
“It’s time,” Mangan said. “We’ve always had a lot of it, but it hasn’t been utilized the way it is now until, all the technologies available to get information out there quickly and easily and perhaps less expensive."
Montana laws also have a baseline of $2,600 in spending before lobbying must be reported.
“Everybody’s talking about it this session,” Mangan said. “Everybody is talking about whether it be buses or people or T-shirts or mailers or tweets or Facebook posts or online petition or websites, on both sides. We get lots of questions about grassroots lobbying and there’s not a lot we can do.”