A bill now headed to Gov. Greg Gianforte's desk would allow unlimited political committee donations to candidates in Montana, while substantially raising limits on contributions by individuals and political parties to campaigns.
The Senate approved the House's amendments to Senate Bill 224 on a party-line vote Friday. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, has been heavily revised in its journey through the Legislature, originally proposing to repeal the PAC limits along with some minor tweaks in campaign reporting requirements.
After a House committee amended it to keep the PAC limits while raising the ceiling on some other donations, another amendment from Fitzpatrick again ditched the limits on PAC donations while further increasing the donation limits.
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"We have to be realistic about our campaign finance system," he said during the Senate floor debate on Thursday. "I think at the end of the day it’s better to have that money directed to the candidates, I think candidates run cleaner campaigns than having it all funneled into PACs and everything else which dumps in all those negative ads."
Senate Democrats opposed the bill, arguing it will reshape the influence of special-interest money in the state's elections. Montana has arguably the most restrictive campaign finance laws in the country, a status it would no longer have if the bill is signed into law.
"I just don’t know that I ran into anybody on the campaign trail that said, 'You know what we need in Montana? More money in politics,'" Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said, calling it "a bad bill made worse" by the amendments.
SB 224 would raise the ceiling on individual contributions to candidates:
- From $500 to $1,000 for a governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket;
- From $250 to $700 for all other statewide candidates; and
- From $130 to $400 for all other public offices, including the state Legislature.
Limits are per election, so a candidate who wins their primary would be able to raise the maximum again for the general election.
Contribution limits from individuals as well as political committees are subject to automatic inflationary adjustments, so the actual limits are higher than those in current statute, which first went into effect in 2002.
Political committees created by political parties are treated differently from other PACs in Montana. The bill would also allow them to give more money to individual candidates, raising the ceiling for those donations:
- From $18,000 to $100,000 for a governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket;
- From $6,500 to $75,000 for all other statewide candidates;
- From $2,600 to $15,000 for public service commissioner candidates;
- From $1,050 to $3,000 for state Senate candidates; and
- From $650 to $2,000 for state House candidates and other public offices
Like the limits on donations by individuals, the limits for political party committees are automatically adjusted for inflation each year.