Billings library forum will look at money and politics


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

This is Royal Johnson, namesake of the Royal Johnson Forum at the Billings Public Library. The inaugural forum will be Thursday evening.

Royal Johnson, a longtime state lawmaker who was also known as a statesman, will be honored Thursday at the first of what is intended to be an annual series of forums at the Billings Public Library.

The first forum, “Knowledge is Power,” will feature a panel of three experts on the role of money in politics, including Alan Simpson, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming.

The free forum, which is open to the public, will start at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Royal Johnson Community Room at the Billings Public Library.

Sponsored by the Billings Public Library Foundation, the forum will also feature Anthony Johnstone, a University of Montana law professor with a wide background in constitutional and election law, and Edwin Bender, director of the Helena-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, better known by its Web address,

Steve Prosinski, retired editor of the Billings Gazette, will moderate the panel discussion. Prosinski said most of his questions will deal with the effects of money on state and local election campaigns and recent court decisions that have “opened the floodgates” to donors wanting to influence elections.

Leslie Modrow, development director for the library foundation, said members of the foundation board got the idea for the forum after Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, spoke at the foundation’s 2015 Food for Thought event.

At Food for Thought, paying customers spend an evening at the library dining, drinking and talking with table hosts from a wide variety of backgrounds. Roth Barber spoke on “Dark Money: Tracking the Flow of Money in Politics,” Modrow said, and “Holy cow, it was so popular. People just wanted to know more.”

Foundation members came up with the idea of a forum on money and politics, and then decided to make it an annual event. The foundation had already named the community room after Johnson last May 2, which was Johnson’s 90th birthday. Modrow said the foundation wanted to sponsor events in the community room, and the forum series seemed perfect.

The goal of the series is to have open, honest discussions of important subjects in a community setting, Modrow said —“all the things a good statesman would want.”

Johnson, a former Billings City Council member and state senator, was chairman of the library board in the late 1980s when he persuaded the library director and various city and county officials that a foundation was needed to support the library.

Once the foundation was formed, Johnson said in an interview Monday, he told other members that they were not going to raise enough money by putting on tea and coffee get-togethers.

“I told them, ‘You’re going to go to your wealthy friends and ask for dough.’” The foundation met its original fundraising goal of $250,000. Since then, it has raised a little more than $5.4 million. The foundation also played a large role in raising private money to match a voter-approved tax levy to build a new library, which opened early in 2014.

For Johnson, working to improve the library was something that had to be done.

“I just don’t think you could be proud of your city without a good library,” he said.

Here’s more information about the panelists who will appear at the forum on Thursday:

Simpson represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate from 1979 to 1997 and later taught at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and for two years was director of the Institute of Politics at the school. In 2010, he was appointed by President Obama as co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

Last year, he became co-chair of the advisory board of Issue One, a nonprofit organization that works to lessen the role of money in politics.

Johnstone teaches and writes about federal and state constitutional law, legislation and related subjects. Before joining the UM School of Law, he served as the solicitor for the state of Montana.

In 2012, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., invited Johnstone to address the Senate Judiciary Committee on the consequences of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the effect of which was to prohibit government restrictions on independent political expenditures by corporations, labor unions and other associations. Relying on its decision in Citizens United, the Supreme Court later invalidated Montana’s century-old Corrupt Practices Act, which was aimed at ending heavy corporate influence on statewide elections.

Bender helped found the National Institute on Money in State Politics and has been the director for more than a decade. The institute bills itself as “the nation’s only free, nonpartisan, verifiable archive of contributions to political campaigns in all 50 states.”

In 2012, Bender was an expert witness when the Montana Attorney General’s Office defended Montana’s campaign-contribution limits.

The library foundation is also hosting a pre-forum reception at Buchanan Capital, 201 N. Broadway. Modrow said the reception is already sold out, and the 110 people attending it also have reserved seats at the forum. Another 40 people will be seated at the forum and standing room will be available.

In other words, you’d better get there early if you want to get in. If you can’t make it, it is being filmed by Community 7 Television and will be aired later, several times.

Attendees will be invited to write out questions for the panelists, and some of those will be used in the question-and-answer session following the panel discussion.

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