Bill increases contribution caps for statewide candidates

Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, listens Thursday to debate in the House before introducing Senate Bill 368. Manzella is carrying the bill that would increase campaign contribution caps for state candidates. (Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service)

By Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA – A bill that would increase the money state candidates can raise is one vote away from passing the Legislature.

Senate Bill 368 failed a vote in the House earlier this week, but was brought back to life by Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, in the House on Thursday.

The House passed the bill on a preliminary vote of 54-46, and needs one final vote before going to Gov. Steve Bullock.

Under the bill, candidates filing for governor or lieutenant governor would be able to receive $1,990 in contributions. It would also increase the contribution cap to $990 for candidates running for state office.

It would also increase contributions from Political Action Committees, or PACs, which are organizations that raise and donate money to candidates. Under the bill, PACs would be allowed to contribute $5,600 to potential state senators, and $3,400 to potential representatives.

The bill would also require the now-independent and nonpartisan Commissioner’s Office of Political Practices to report to the attorney general’s office, held now by a Republican. Republicans have picked at the office during the legislative session, claiming the office has been partisan in its rulings.

Manzella is carrying the bill in the House and said the campaign contribution limits are the least of her concerns.

“What this bill does that we should all appreciate is that it brings transparency for all of us, it brings accountability for the COPP, as well as us,” Manzella said.

Rep. Zac Perry, D-Hungry Horse, opposes the bill and said it would reverse a law passed in 2015 to remove “dark money” in Montana politics.

“We had a great moment in the last session with the Montana Disclose Act, that was a great achievement by that body. I see this bill as an attempt to undermine that,” Perry said.

The bill would also require the Commissioner of Political Practices to give a warning to any candidate who is noncompliant with campaign finance laws. The candidate then would have 10 days to respond whether they intend to be compliant with the regulations.

Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, likes that part of the bill. He said with the way laws are written, it’s easy for somebody to make a simple mistake.

“What it’s telling us here – at least as I understand it – if you are in noncompliance, the commissioner will get ahold of you. You have an opportunity to correct that,” Brown said.

Freddy Monares is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.