Senate says ‘no’ to amendments stripping political practices boss of independence

Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl

By Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA – The Senate rejected amendments to a bill Monday that would require the now-independent Commissioner of Political Practices to report to the state’s Attorney General.

The amendments would also require the office to issue warnings to candidates before fining them for not complying with campaign laws, and it sets up a process to appeal violations.

Senate Bill 368 would increase the money candidates can raise, but when the House passed it last week, they also added the amendments the Senate rejected Monday. The office has been a sticking point for Republicans this legislative session, with multiple bills to curtail the office’s power.

The bill will now go to a conference committee, comprised of members from the Senate and House, to resolve the disagreements.

In the Senate in March, the unamended bill had bipartisan support and passed on a 48-to-2 vote. Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, is the sponsor of the bill and said he asked the House to amend it to clarify mediation.

“But the third amendment basically shifts control and supervision of litigation from the Commissioner of Political Practices to the Attorney General,” Thompson said. “Which I think is a matter of policy that we didn’t choose to go down that path.”

The bill originally died on a tied preliminary vote in the House earlier this month, but was later revived by Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton. During that debate, Manzella said the fundraising limits were 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.

At a meeting last week after the House passed the bill, Gov. Steve Bullock said he had only seen an early version of the bill.

“I don’t want it to impede the effectiveness and the abilities of the Commissioner of Political Practices, but I’ll take a close look at it if it gets to my desk,” Bullock 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.