- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana officials said they will ask a federal judge for an immediate stay on a Tuesday ruling that allowed political parties to contribute unlimited amounts of cash to campaigns.

In seeking the stay, state Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said he worried about the chaos that could result if political parties launch a spending frenzy.

“There could be unlimited amounts of money contributed to political candidates. And that money could come from anywhere, from wealthy individuals from across the United States,” Motl said. “It would undercut Montana’s hundred-year history of keeping campaign financing within the reach of ordinary people.”

The state will seek the stay from U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell, the same judge who on Tuesday struck down as unconstitutional for the second time the contribution limits approved by voters in 1994.

Earlier in the day, Motl dismissed a four-year-old complaint against former gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill after Lovell, in his ruling, called the allegations against Hill a moot point. Motl previously said he would defer to the court’s ruling.

The complaint against Hill arose when Gov. Steve Bullock’s campaign manager alleged Hill violated campaign finance laws by accepting a $500,000 donation from the Montana Republican Party after Lovell first struck down the state’s limits in October 2012.

Until Tuesday, state law capped total contributions from political party committees to candidates, ranging from $850 per election for a state House candidate to $23,350 for a gubernatorial candidate. But Tuesday’s ruling nullified those limits.

The repercussions from Lovell’s ruling are still largely unknown, as candidates in contested races campaign for the June 7 primary.

The chair of the Montana Republican Party, Rep. Jeff Essmann of Billings, said in an email that party officials were still reviewing the court’s decision and “have not made any plans on spending at this point.”

All donations to the party will be disclosed in compliance with campaign finance laws, Essmann said.

Nancy Keenan, the executive director for the Montana Democratic Party, pledged that her party would abide by limits in place before Tuesday’s ruling.

Democrats, including Gov. Steve Bullock, had called on Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican, to appeal Lovell’s ruling.

Motl conferred with the attorney general’s office prior to announcing that state officials would be seeking a stay, which he said would be limited to the judge’s ruling on political parties. He said there were no immediate plans to seek a stay on contribution limits for individuals and political action committees.

Because of Lovell’s ruling, limits on individual contributions will rise modestly. But the cap on political action committees will jump dramatically - particularly in gubernatorial campaigns.

PACs can now contribute as much as $10,610 per election cycle instead of the $1,320 that had been in place earlier this week for contested gubernatorial races. PAC limits will also rise to $2,650 for other statewide offices, up from $640. The limit goes up to $800 for the state Senate and $400 for the House - instead of the previous $340 limit for both chambers.

“It’s a pretty good jump,” Motl said. “But at least there are still limits that everybody can see and deal with.”

Individuals can now contribute as much as $1,990 to gubernatorial candidates and up to $990 for other statewide contests per election cycle, which includes primary and general elections.

If money begins pouring into campaigns, it won’t be immediately known. The next campaign finance deadline is Monday for political parties, ballot issues and independent committees, covering contributions from April 27 through May 18.


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