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House endorses repeal of PAC money limits for legislative candidates
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House endorses repeal of PAC money limits for legislative candidates

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Montana would lose its status as arguably the nation’s most restrictive when it comes to campaign finance limits under a bill that passed a preliminary vote in the House on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 224, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls, would substantially hike maximum contributions from individuals and political committees to candidates for legislative and statewide offices, while eliminating limits on some campaign contributions and raising the threshold for which a contribution must be reported to state Commissioner of Political Practices.

The bill received a 69-31 vote on second reading, with three Democrats joining all but one Republican in voting for the measure. The House also passed, on a party-line vote, an amendment that further increased the campaign contribution limits already proposed in the legislation.

Rep. Brian Putnam, R-Kalispell, carried the bill in the House, and acknowledged he was “a little concerned about eliminating the PAC (political action committee) limits,” but beyond running through the text of the bill, offered few comments in support.

"There's a lot of money flowing into political action committees instead of candidates, this will allow some of that money to flow directly to candidates rather than going into PACs," Putnam said.

No one else spoke in support of the bill, although several Democrats spoke against it.

“If I were going to draft a bill on behalf of the wishes all the special interest groups based on how they thought they most easily exploit the campaign process to tilt the playing field in their favor, this bill would be it,” Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, said.

Bozeman Democrat Rep. Denise Hayman called the bill “a complete surrender of our political system to large corporations that already invest quite a bit to control it.”

With the amendment, SB 224 would raise the ceiling for individual contributions:

  • 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. For example, for the 2020 primary and general elections, individuals and political committees could donate up to $180 for state legislative races, $50 more than the limit outlined in state law.

The bill also eliminates the state’s aggregate limits for legislative candidates receiving money from political committees. That limit refers to the total amount of money a candidate can accept from all political committees.

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:

  • 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.

The bill would also raise Montana’s reporting threshold — the smallest political donation that still has to be reported to the COPP — from $35 to $50.

According to a 2019 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Montana has among the country’s strictest donation limits for nearly every type of contribution to individual candidates, be it at the statewide or district level.

Alaska sets a slightly lower ceiling for gubernatorial candidates, because it caps individuals’ donations at $500 no matter which office they’re donating to. But Alaska also caps contributions on a yearly basis, while Montana’s per-election limits mean individuals or other entities can give twice the limit when they’re able to donate separately to a candidate’s primary and general election campaigns.

Colorado maintains slightly higher contribution caps than Montana for legislative and most statewide candidates, although in the case of gubernatorial elections the limit is slightly lower.

For most other states, the donation limits aren’t anywhere near those of Montana, which have been the subject of lawsuits in recent years. Ten states place no limits on contributions by individuals to candidates, while 20 states don’t limit those contributions from political parties. In at least 11 states, political committees can give unlimited campaign money to individual candidates.

A final vote is required on SB 224 before it passes the House, after which it would head back to the Senate to consider the amendments.

For the first time in 16 years, Montana has a Republican in the governor's office, after Gov. Greg Gianforte won the 2020 election and replaced the termed-out former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. One of Bullock's hallmark issues was working to limit dark money in the state's elections, and in 2015 he passed the Disclose Act, which increased transparency in campaign finance reporting, with bipartisan support. Across two governor's races in four years, Gianforte self-financed his campaigns with more than $12.5 million.

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