Bill would replace Montana elections watchdog with Secretary of State

Skees makes second attempt to eliminate the office of Commissioner of Political Practices

Jeff Mangan, Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices, testified against a bill that would eliminate his office at the state Legislature on February 25, 2021. (MPAN)

When Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices dismissed a residency complaint from Tom Woods against his opponent in a race for the Public Service Commission, the former lawmaker said he realized two things.

“To me, it proves the commissioner makes mistakes,” Woods told the House State Administration Committee. “To you, it proves the commissioner does not always side with Democrats.”

Woods’ contention is at the heart of the argument about a revived effort to eliminate Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices and move its duties to the Secretary of State, an idea that provoked stiff opposition from the commissioner’s office, county elections officials and others in a hearing Thursday.

“It’s like having an umpire in the baseball game,” Woods said. “Someone has to call balls and strikes. What this bill does is make the umpire a member of the home team.”

The Commissioner of Political Practices is tasked with enforcing Montana’s campaign laws, reviewing finance reports, registering lobbyists and more. House Bill 535, sponsored by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, would move the bulk of the office’s operations to the Secretary of State’s office, while enforcement responsibilities would be handed off to the Attorney General or relevant county attorney.

In its place, the bill would create a four-person campaign practices and ethics review board. The House Speaker, Senate President, and House and Senate Minority Leaders would each nominate someone to the board, which would vote on sanctions arising from complaints referred to the body by the Secretary of State. If there’s sufficient evidence for prosecution, the board would in turn refer the complaint to the proper authority.

Skees told the committee Thursday that removing the office, which was the Legislature created in the 1970s, would remove partisanship from the enforcement of campaign law.

“It’s appointed by a governor and the electorate has no redress to that office,” he said.

The equally bipartisan review board would serve as a “filter mechanism” against overtly partisan complaints, Skees added — in other words, a violation would have to be egregious enough to unite the board’s Democratic and Republican members.

The current Commissioner of Political Practices is Jeff Mangan, someone who Skees said he thinks is doing an excellent job.

“I’m bringing this bill because of his predecessor,” Skees said. “He was used as a hammer for the Democratic governor the entire time he was in his office.”

He’s referring to former Commissioner Jonathan Motl, who waged a high-profile fight against GOP-aligned dark money groups over candidate coordination violations that culminated in a record judgment last year. In 2017, Skees proposed a largely similar bill that made it out of the House but ultimately died in a Senate committee.

Opponents say the bill would do the opposite of Skees’ claims, consolidating an important government oversight function into other state and county agencies run by elected officials who are themselves partisan — a point raised by multiple lawmakers on the committee during testimony. Skees, for the record, repeated his belief that both elected attorneys and the Secretary of State are independent.

Mangan, the current commissioner, told the committee that the bill had none of the ethics safeguards that exist for the office today.

“The commissioner can also be impeached and prosecuted,” he said. “They must follow Montana’s code of ethics and Montana’s campaign finance laws. You will not find, among many other things, such processes in the bill. There’s no process for conflict of interest, no recusal, no process for an ethics complaint against the commission of four.”

Mangan also addressed Skees’ concerns about citizen accountability. The governor does not have the unilateral ability to pick a commissioner, he said. Rather, the Legislature reviews and submits a list of nominees to the governor, who makes his or her pick. Still, the governor’s chosen candidate still must face confirmation by the Senate.

As far as perceived political prejudice, he said the closest he’s ever come to either the current or past governor was speaking with their staffs.

Other members of the office said that the transition outlined in the bill would be costly, difficult and necessitate significant new rulemaking.

It would also intermix what had previously been separate functions: while county clerks and the Secretary of State run elections, they do not generally enforce election law.

“Just that I’m the election administrator on the county level, the Secretary of State is the election administrator on the state level,” said Regina Plettenberg with the Montana Association of Clerks, Recorders and Election Officials, who described the bill as “scary.”

“We feel it’s important that those duties be separate,” she said.
Dana Corson, director of voter and elections services for the Secretary of State’s Office, was present in committee as an informational witness on Thursday. His office, however, is not taking a stance.
Corson had previously testified in support of bills that his boss, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, is backing, noted State Administration Committee Chair Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm,

“This is a green light for more partisan shenanigans,” said Woods. “No voter has ever told me that they want me to go to Helena and make Montana politics more partisan.”