- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Money has been flowing into Montana legislative races at a brisk pace, fueled by political committees seeking to influence the makeup of the Legislature that convenes in January.

With Montana’s campaign contribution caps among the lowest in the country for legislative office seekers, political action committees are stepping in to provide some financial muscle - not by contributing directly to campaign coffers but by spending tens of thousands of dollars on their own for mailers and other advertising.

Since early May, Montanans for Responsible Leadership has spent more than $33,000, nearly half of it on mailers, to so-called “responsible Republicans” in the June 7 primary.

The Montana Contractors Association has spent nearly $6,000 thus far for similar mailers, with about $20,000 more left in its war chest, according to campaign finance filings with the Commissioner of Political Practices.

The Jobs for Montana PAC, a self-described pro-business political action committee, has poured in about $15,000 to aid three state Senate candidates and one state House seeker.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures have already flooded into the gubernatorial race between Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Greg Gianforte.

Legislative contests haven’t been immune to the influence of big money - although the amount being spent this cycle pales to the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in Montana Republican legislative primary races by groups aligned with the National Right to Work Committee from 2008 to 2012, said Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl.

“One of the dramatic features of the 2016 elections is the increased requirement of transparency because of the Disclose Act,” Motl said, referring to the new state law aimed at bringing light to so-called dark money by requiring corporations to disclose contributors and spending.

Independent committees can spend unlimited amounts of money, although state law forbids coordination with the campaigns they seek to help.

Legislative office seekers can also spend unlimited amounts of money - but must abide with contribution limits that control how much money is available to them to spend.

Under current contribution limits, individual donors can give state Senate candidates up to $530 and political committees can contribute up to $800 during a campaign season, which includes the primary and general elections.

In state House races, the limits are lower: $330 for individuals and $400 for political committees.

“We don’t raise very much money on our races,” said Sen. Jennifer Fielder, adding that she knows of no independent committees trying to counteract the spending by Montanans for Responsible Leadership.

Fielder’s finance reports show she’s raised $6,300 thus far and spent less than $300.

“Conservative candidates are standing on their own two feet and running their own campaigns,” she said.

In its mailers, Montanans for Responsible Leadership has ridiculed some conservative incumbents, including Fielder, Rep. Scott Staffanson and Rep. Art Wittich.

“The Republican Party is split nationally and in the state of Montana. This election cycle, voters have more information, and more clarity, on who’s on what side in that battle,” said Sandy Welch, the group’s deputy treasurer.

The Montana Contractors Association has also aligned itself with moderates.

“Legislators have a track record of supporting our interests, and that’s who we tend to support. Occasionally, we will also venture out and support a candidate who is running against an incumbent,” said Cary Hegreberg, the association’s executive director. “We’re supporting pro-business, pro-infrastructure candidates. That’s the litmus test.”

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