Montana receives “F” for its disclosure laws

Map of grades on disclosure laws given by the National Institute on Money in State Politics

Map of grades on disclosure laws given by the National Institute on Money in State Politics

A report released this week by the National Institute on Money in State Politics gives Montana a failing grade on its disclosure laws related to campaign spending in elections.

Twenty-five other states received “F”s in the report, while 15 states received an “A”.

“What we found interesting was that the state’s were either great or awful,” said the Institute’s Managing Director Denise Roth Barber. “There were very few in between.”

Barber describes NIMSP as a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization that takes as one of its charges strongly advocating full disclosure in political spending. The report graded states on “disclosure requirements for super PACs, nonprofits and other outside spending groups.”

Barber said there is quite a bit of interest right now on the national level to require more disclosure on spending in federal races.

“But at the state level,” she said, “we don’t actually know in too many states, including Montana, how much money is even spent, let alone where it came from.”

She said the major campaign finance overhaul pitched by Gov. Steve Bullock and carried by Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, called the TRACE Act, could have single-handedly brought Montana’s grade up from an “F” to an “A”. On top of increasing disclosure, that bill would have increased the fines for violating Montana’s current election laws. The bill passed the Senate 29-21 after a heated debate. However, the bill never made it to the House floor and died when the Legislature adjourned.

Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, complimented Sen. Peterson and supporters for their intentions with the TRACE Act, but said he and other opponents believe the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear: money equals speech when it comes to political spending.

“The protection of anonymity in political speech has been a part of this country since before the founding of the Republic,” Moore said.

Who’s winning and losing as the legislature winds down

Johnson, Mauk & Dennison 3SMALLTonight on “Capitol Talk”, our weekly legislative analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison about where all the big-ticket items stand a week before adjournment: the budget, Medicaid expansion, state workers’ pay raises and pensions –  and school funding. They also discuss the unlikely hero of the session for gay rights supporters….

Senate gives initial approval to pension fixes

State Senators have given initial approval to a pair of bills seeking to fix the state’s public employee pension systems.

A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans passed the bills.

The measures fund long-term debt that faces the state’s two biggest retirement plans.

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce says some Republicans don’t think that is going to work.

Senate tables construction project cash plan, with hope to revive bonding bill

A committee of State Senators has tabled a bill which would have provided for about $100 million in state construction projects—many of them on state University campuses. The bill tabled by the Senate Finance and Claims committee paid for those projects with cash. They were all removed from a bonding bill proposal that died in the House.

There are still efforts in the legislature to get those buildings built.

The motion to table this mammoth Long Range Building Program in the Senate Finance Committee passed 17-3—widely bipartisan. In total, this bill has about $230 million in construction funds from a variety of sources. But about $100 million would have paid for projects that used to be in the state bonding bill. Projects ranging from a new Montana Historical Society building to the new Missoula College. The Long Range Building Program would have paid for these projects with cash out of the state’s general fund.

But looking at how the state budget looks now, Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad) says “In truthfulness, there isn’t enough cash to cash all the projects.”

He describes why he thinks the committee almost unanimously tabled these Construction projects both sides of the aisle claim to want as “a last desperate measure to try to put together a budget that includes at least some cash projects and some bonding projects.” 

Many Republicans don’t like the idea of bonding—taking loans out for the buildings. They want to pay up front. That’s why they took all the projects out and put them in the cash plan. Two Tribal Water Compacts were all that were left in the bonding bill. Representative Cook still wanted the bonding plan to stay alive and make it over to the Senate just in case.

But it didn’t, bonding proposals take a two-thirds vote of a legislative chamber—and even the eviscerated bonding bill couldn’t swing it. Now there isn’t enough money to pay for them with cash.

So when Cook calls this a last desperate measure, here’s the scenario he’s talking about:

Senate Finance tables the cash plan, then tries again to work with the House to muster the two-thirds vote required to bring the bonding bill back to life and another two-thirds vote to send it over. Then Senate Finance revives the cash plan, then they have both.

“That is the idea, to put both vehicles in Senate Finance and Claims so they can see what the cash balance is,” said Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh (D-Helena), maybe putting some back into bonding, maybe keep others in the cash plan.

Legislators could remove projects too—and some are trying to remove the contentious Missoula College project. Senator Eric Moore (R-Miles City), he’s the one that brought forward the move to table the bill.

He’s not a fan of moving anything back to a bonding program, but he says at this point in the session—it’s tough to know what’s going to happen.

“This is where things start to happen really fast so nothing’s ever completely dead, nothing’s ever completely certain until we Sine Die, pound the gavel and the Governor signs it,” he said.

The Legislature is scheduled to wrap up April 27th.

How a New York newspaper may affect Montana’s concealed carry laws

Jan Anderson of the Boulder Monitor speaks before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday

Jan Anderson of the Boulder Monitor speaks before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday

When a suburban New York newspaper, The Journal News published the names and addresses of concealed carry gun permit holders in two NY counties in December, gun rights advocates were enraged. NRA President David Keene called it “an incredibly irresponsible… attempt by the elite to demonize people who own firearms legitimately,” according to POLITICO.

Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson said, “In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, (we) thought the community should know where gun permit holders in their community were, in part to give parents an opportunity to make careful decisions about their children’s safety.” The newspaper has since removed the listing due to a new law passed in New York which provides increased privacy protections to gun permit owners.

Montana lawmakers are now working on similar legislation. On Wednesday, Senator Eric Moore (R-Miles City) spoke on his SB 145 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He cited reports of permit holders being harassed after their information was published in The Journal News. “Let’s be proactive,” Moore told the committee, “and avoid this situation in Montana by protecting the privacy and safety of our law abiding citizens who choose to obtain a concealed carry permit.”

The Montana Department of Justice says over 30-thousand concealed carry permit holders live in the state, as of mid-December.

The bill would make the information one has to fill in for a concealed carry permit confidential information for use only by the local sheriff, who decides on the distribution of the permits. This information, including “name, address, physical description, signature, driver’s license number…and a picture of the permittee,” is currently public record.

Bill supporter Montana Shooting Sports Association Lobbyist Doug Nulle, said this information being public can subject a concealed carry applicant to “a wide variety of crimes,” and said that can be a particular concern for “retired law enforcement officers, private investigators…stalking victims and victims of domestic violence.”

Boulder Monitor Publisher and Editor Jan Anderson argued against the bill. “There are legitimate reasons the public is entitled to certain information and indeed there are valid reasons in this situation,” she said, suggesting someone feeling threatened should be able to check if the person threatening them has a concealed weapons permit.

The Montana Newspaper Association also opposed it, arguing instead for emphasis on another bill, SB 37, which makes much of the same information confidential, but keeps the concealed carry applicant’s name and address on public record.

No action was taken on the bill Wednesday.

GOP Leaders react to emails indicating division in party, encourage unity

Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings), center,  speaks with the Senate GOP Caucus Thursday

Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings), center, speaks with the Senate GOP Caucus Thursday

Republican leaders in the Montana Senate are reacting to a series of emails showing a sharp divide between the moderate and conservative factions of their party.

 The private emails obtained by the Great Falls Tribune speak of a long-term strategy of Senate President Jeff Essman (R-Billings) to create an atmosphere leading to a more conservative Legislature and a more conservative Montana Supreme Court. In the emails, Essman suggested moderate Republicans could ‘derail the conservative agenda.’ He said moderates were in a position to block such an agenda if they decide to align with Democrats.

But on Thursday afternoon, Essman tried to alleviate sore feelings about the emails during a Senate Republican Caucus meeting. He said he’s always been consistent about his agenda to create a ‘conservative, balanced budget.’ He assured the group he was elected Senate President to serve the whole body, Republicans and Democrats.

“My responsibility to them is to make sure their bills get a fair hearing and that the rights of the minority are respected,” he said.

Essman defeated 2011 Senate President Jim Peterson (R-Buffalo)a, who did run for re-election. Peterson is seen as more moderate by comparison, and was referred to several times in the emails among Essman, Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, Majority Whip Eric Moore and Senators Jason Priest, Ed Walker and Dave Lewis.

The emails speak about not being able to trust Peterson not to work with Democrats, calling him a chump. Peterson said he finds the emails unbelievable, saying current leadership seems to be making no room for those he calls ‘Reagan Republicans.’

“You know, Reagan prided himself on being able to hear both sides of a conversation and finding a solution. And here that’s getting tougher to do…without feeling your future being jeopardized,” Peterson said.

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich (R-Bozeman) doesn’t shy away from saying he was strategizing for a way to promote his world view in the emails.

“It’s not just conservatism, I think there are other things that we were concerned about,” he said. “Frankly, we wanted strategic thought, we wanted competence in our leadership.”

He said the ideological debate going on within the GOP is a discussion happening across the country and that the emails don’t change the intentions of his party to work across the aisle and within their own aisle to find common ground.