By Michael Siebert UM Community News Service

HELENA – The Montana House has passed a controversial bill that could raise campaign contribution limits last week.

Senate Bill 368, introduced by Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, would make several significant changes to campaign practice law. The bill increases maximum allowable donations from both individuals and political action committees. It also places the office of the Commissioner of Political Practices under the jurisdiction of the state Attorney General, and requires the office to give candidates who have been found in violation of laws time to correct their mistakes.

Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, listens Thursday to debate in the House before introducing Senate Bill 368. Manzella is carrying the bill that would increase campaign contribution caps for state candidates. PHOTO BY FREDDY MONARES/UM LEGISLATIVE NEWS SERVICE

Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, listens Thursday to debate in the House before introducing Senate Bill 368. PHOTO BY FREDDY MONARES/UM LEGISLATIVE NEWS SERVICE

“We take an oath to uphold the constitution,” said Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, who carried the bill in the House. “This bill fixes two things that are out of compliance with our state and our federal constitution.”

District Judge Charles Lovell struck down Montana’s contribution limits in May of last year due to the federal Supreme Court’s ruling that corporations are protected under the First Amendment. Manzella said Montana’s contribution limits are unconstitutionally low because of this, and that the legislature should raise them accordingly. Montana’s contribution limits are currently being challenged in a federal appeals court case making a similar argument.

Democrats strongly opposed the bill when it was first heard last Wednesday.

“We should be thinking about how this is going to affect the voters and how this is going to affect our democracy as a whole,” said Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula.

Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings, said raising contribution limits would hinder lower-income candidates, and would allow for more interference from special interest groups in elections.

“Contribution limits are really one of the last tools that we have to keep in Montana our elections corruption free,” Court said.

Some Republicans disagreed, arguing Montana has the lowest contribution limits in the country, and that this inhibits fair elections.

“If you want fair campaigns, if you want to be on a level playing field, we need to pass this bill,” said Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus.

SB 368 initially failed the House on a 50-50 vote, but Rep. Manzella moved to have it reconsidered the following day. The bill then passed the House on a vote of 54-46.

Health care transparency bill passes House

As lawmakers attempt to help drive down Montana’s health care costs, the full Legislature has passed a bill that would increase pricing transparency for medical procedures.

Senate Bill 362, introduced by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, would require providers to list prices for procedures, as well as maintain a “transparency tool” that would allow consumers to compare prices throughout the state.

Buttrey said the bill would help encourage competition between providers, a market-based approach.

“We have to lower the cost of care at the providers,” Buttrey said. “Without competition I don’t really know how you’d do that.”

SB 362 initially provided a monetary incentive for patients who chose to shop for health care around the state. The Senate removed that from the bill after backlash from insurance companies, who said it would only incentivize patients to seek out lower quality health care.

The bill was carried in the House by Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad.

The original bill also required providers to warn patients if the cost would increase should they choose a service from an out-of-network provider. Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, introduced an amendment that places that burden on insurance companies instead. The amendment ultimately passed 79-21.

“Healthcare providers … probably have no idea who is out of network and who is in network under certain insurance policies,” Kelker said.

The bill passed on a vote of 88-11. The Senate agreed with the House’s amendments 42-8 and sent the bill to the governor.

Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community and Legislative News Services, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.