As all eyes follow Plum Creek Timber Co. and its controversial liquidation of timber assets, some politicians are focusing on how the state’s largest landowner is distributing campaign money in an election year. With nearly three months remaining in the fundraising season, recent financial reports show Plum Creek’s political action committee (PAC) has donated more than $17,000 to 74 state-level races, and nearly $10,000 to state parties in Montana.
Targeting mostly Republican candidates, reports show the PAC filed more than $8,500 in direct contributions to conservative candidates in Montana, $4,500 to the Montana Republican Party and $1,000 to the Flathead County Republican Central Committee. Six Democrats received less than a quarter of the PAC’s money, including incumbent Rep. Dave McAlpin, D-Missoula.
While many candidates see no issues in accepting Plum Creek donations, others find the contributions to be a bad sign.
“They want to offer us money through the political action committee so they can grease the skids before the 2009 Legislature,” says incumbent Rep. Margarett Campbell, D-Poplar, who declined a $130 contribution from the PAC. “It’s a lot easier to be objective if you’re not holding their money.”
Other Democrats disagree. Citing rising campaign costs and the fact that lobbyists can’t exactly hold a gun to his head on the House floor, incumbent Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, is happy to take the money.
“I take the first PAC checks that come in the mail. They’re a huge piece in our campaign budget,” says Bergren. “I’m only beholden to the folks back home–not the PACs, not the money, not the donors.”
McAlpin feels the same way about PAC money, insisting that his vote cannot be purchased.
“If you really check the record, I voted against Plum Creek every single time, particularly on [taxation] issues from the House Tax Committee,” says McAlpin. “I take donations from any PAC, and I use them to elect forward thinking and progressive folks to the Montana Legislature, along with myself, of course.”
The financial connections sometimes go beyond just Plum Creek’s PAC. Veteran state legislator Jim Elliott, D-Trout Creek, holds stock in the company. He believes that relationship differs from accepting PAC money, something he refuses to do.
“I don’t want the contribution to influence my behavior,” says Elliott. “If Plum Creek offered me money, I wouldn’t take it.”
Elliott points to the fact he wrote an article critical of Plum Creek’s tax status that ran in 28 weekly papers across Montana as evidence of his unbiased stance. He’s also sponsored bills in the past that directly challenged Plum Creek’s bottom line.
“If a PAC gives you money, you feel some level of obligation to them,” Elliott says. “Even if you don’t see it, at the subconscious level, I believe it’s there…Being a shareholder allows me to comment on discussions about the company. It gives me a right to be heard because I own equity in the company.”
While some Democrats refuse direct contributions from the Plum Creek PAC, they still could profit from the company. For instance, the PAC gave $2,500 to the Montana Democratic Party, which supports state-level campaigns, and also reports a $1,000 contribution to the Treasure State PAC, which is controlled by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and frequently makes donations to the state party.
“I will take the Democratic Party’s money…and I don’t know if a couple dollars of the Democrats’ money will come from Plum Creek,” says Elliott. “Money becomes like a grain pile when you get it. You don’t know who each individual grain belongs to.”
Kevin O’Brien, a state party spokesperson, says the Plum Creek money has not been earmarked for a particular use. He did reiterate the party’s blanket purpose for spending money: “Elect Democrats.”
When it comes to individual campaign donations, Plum Creek typically issues a modest $130 gift. While the figure may appear small, Montana’s $160 contribution limit for legislative races remains one of the lowest in the country. In other words, every penny makes a difference.
“It’s quite a bit of money,” says Campbell of Plum Creek’s typical donation. “These campaigns aren’t as expensive as the bigger campaigns that are buying $5,000 billboard signs.”
Elliott concurs, arguing Plum Creek’s influence in this year’s races is particularly significant.
“They have a hell of a lot of influence in state politics,” Elliott says. “If they donated to virtually every Republican candidate, and they get elected or re-elected, there’s certainly influence.”
Kathy Budinick, a Plum Creek spokesperson who personally contributed to the company’s PAC, says there’s nothing unusual about the company’s role in state politics.
“We are a company whose business interests are affected by state policy, and the constitutional process allows for individuals and businesses to represent their interests to policy makers,” she says. “Plum Creek gives PAC money because we support the election of qualified candidates who will represent their constituents, including businesses.”
Anne Hedges, executive director of the Helena-based Montana Environmental Information Center, acknowledges this reality.
“Plum Creek sees some legislators as being very concerned with them developing their properties, and they want to provide incentives to continue that. They want to make sure they can keep a sweetheart tax deal,” she says, referring to Plum Creek being taxed as a timber producer while it has stopped producing timber and transitions to selling real estate.
At the end of the day, she says, all the influence in electoral politics boils down to one factor with Plum Creek.
“It translates into money, plain and simple,” Hedges says. “It’s a good investment for them. That’s pretty cheap.”