When state Rep. Derek Skees' bill to eliminate the Office of Political Practices was tabled in committee late last month, it looked like the state's campaign-law enforcement agency might escape the 2017 Legislature unscathed. Then Senate Bill 368 stormed in, passing from committee to the Senate floor to the House in just two weeks. Commissioner Jonathan Motl found himself once again stepping before lawmakers to urge caution over action, declaring SB 368 a "political insiders' bill."
Though not nearly as startling as Skees' proposal, SB 368 would significantly alter the campaign practices landscape in Montana, in part by doubling contribution limits. The aggregate limit for contributions to gubernatorial races from political parties, for example, would rise from $23,850 to $47,700. The measure's sponsor, Republican Sen. Tom Richmond of Billings, worked with lawmakers including Democratic Sens. Jon Sesso and Diane Sands to craft the bill, and pitched the increases as a bipartisan solution to a controversy that has pinballed in the courts for nearly five years.
"It really is about putting them at some point where a federal judge under Citizens United ... that they pass the test of a reasonable limit, because we're going to apparently treat money as free speech," Richmond told the House Judiciary Committee on April 7.
Montana's contribution limits have become something of a moving target ever since District Judge Charles Lovell first struck them down as unconstitutional in an October 2012 suit filed by conservative groups including the nonprofit American Tradition Partnership. That ruling lasted roughly a week before the decision was overturned by the 9th Circuit on appeal. Lovell again threw out the limits on political parties last May, this time making it nine days before staying his own order. That suit, brought by a coalition of conservative PACs and Republican central committees, is still unresolved in the 9th Circuit.
It isn't the doubling of contribution limits that drew Motl's criticism, though, as Motl tells the Indy such a position is outside the commissioner's purview. SB 368 would also strip the commissioner's office of its authority to bring criminal action against those it finds in violation of campaign practice law, and would establish an appeal and mediation process for candidates and committees—changes Motl sees as an "erosion" of the office's independence. "The candidates and committees that are going to ask for on-demand mediation are those that are against campaign practices entirely," he told House Judiciary. "Those are the candidates and committees that go to court anyway, that we cannot settle with."
Motl has little professional skin left in the SB 368 debate at this point. While Gov. Steve Bullock hasn't set a timeline for naming Motl's successor, he's already interviewed both of the Legislature-approved candidates, meaning Motl's retirement could begin any day now. Even so, Motl appears intent on waging one last legislative skirmish. "I don't really see there being any other option than to do what I'm doing," he tells the Indy, "which is to fully represent the independence of the office until the next commissioner is appointed."