- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana lawmakers are considering raising campaign contribution limits for state candidates and allowing decisions on campaign finance violations to go to mediation, over the objections of the outgoing regulator who says the measure could affect a pending case and diminish his office’s independence.

The bill by Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, would increase how much money state candidates can receive from political parties, committees and individuals. Richmond said the measure is in response to a federal judge’s 2016 ruling that Montana’s low limits unconstitutionally restricted free speech.

“We, the group that worked on this bill, believe that these campaign contribution limits are reasonable and that the Legislature, because of the actions of the court, needs to set a policy for our contribution limits,” Richmond told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.

The campaign contribution case Richmond referred to is not settled. An appeal of U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell’s decision to strike down Montana’s contribution limits is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which could reinstate them.

State Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said there is no need to change the limits until the federal appeals court makes its ruling, and doing so beforehand could result in the case being dismissed and the state being forced to pay lawyers’ fees that could exceed $1 million.

But Motl said he is most worried by provisions in the bill that would affect the commissioner’s independent authority to oversee campaign finance and reporting laws.

The bill would eliminate the commissioner’s ability to initiate criminal cases against candidates, insert an unneeded mediator that would delay the process of resolving campaign violations and add burdensome duties that would prevent the commissioner’s staff from investigating cases, he said.

That would benefit organizations and candidates who deliberately try to skirt or usurp campaign finance laws, he said. The vast majority of candidates who violate campaign laws do so unintentionally and work with the commissioner’s office to fix the violation quickly, and they would not choose to take their cases to mediation, he said.

The proposal would also make campaign reports less transparent by raising the threshold for reporting individual donors from $35 contributions to $50 contributions, he said.

Activist and campaign consultant C.B. Pearson added that the proposal would be a step back after the state updated its campaign finance laws in 2015 to require more reporting and transparency.

“By every means, the rules that we have, the disclosure that we have, the enforcement that we have, are some of the best in the country,” Pearson said.

Richmond said the proposed changes are meant to prevent criminalizing campaign finance mistakes and to add a mediator as a check to the commissioner’s power.

Presently, the commissioner investigates campaign complaints, makes the charges and sets the penalties, he said.

“We felt that there needed to be some place in the process where there was another set of eyes to look at a complaint and decide whether or not it merited the penalties being assessed,” Richmond said.

Montana Trial Lawyers Association executive director Al Smith responded that the mediator would only delay the resolution of a complaint by 30 days, a period in which an election could be held. That would allow groups or candidates to flaunt state laws and “essentially keep that commissioner’s final decision from coming out prior to an election,” Smith said.

Richmond’s bill has sped through the legislative process after being introduced March 22, with the Senate passing it 48-2 eight days later. The House committee did not take immediate action on it Friday.

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