To address concerns about “dark money” in politics, a Spokane legislator is proposing a much-needed update to state campaign disclosure rules. It’s a great start but a few tweaks are needed.
Washingtonians could know more about who is paying to influence elections and ballot measures under legislation proposed last week.
Though there are a few easy ways to make the bill even stronger.
Aimed at “dark money” funneled through nonprofits and opaque political entities, the legislation proposed by state Sen. Andy Billig would require disclosure of large donations and spending by “incidental” political committees.
These incidental committees operate in a gray area that’s not covered well by current campaign disclosure rules.
Billig, a Spokane Democrat, is motivated by concerns about voters not knowing who is funding politically active groups that wield significant influence on state and local elections.
This issue was highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” case that removed spending limits on independent groups.
Billig’s bill could affect nonprofits like the Seattle advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition, which I wrote about in September.
Although TCC takes credit for the passage of dozens of ballot measures, raising more than $70 billion from taxpayers, it never registered as a political committee and specific details of its funding aren’t disclosed.
Even so, the state Public Disclosure Commission declined to pursue the issue, relying on what seems a subjective interpretation of state law.
An organization must register and disclose contributors if political activity is its “primary or one of its primary purposes,” according to a 1976 state Supreme Court ruling.
TCC’s annual reports describe extensive work on transit-funding ballot measures, and it tells donors that for every $1.50 they invest, TCC will help return $25,000 in infrastructure spending.
Yet in declining to investigate whether TCC should have registered as a political committee, PDC Executive Director Peter Lavallee told me that “it does not appear that its primary purpose is supporting or opposing ballot measures after they have been submitted to voters.”
The key word to me is “its” — instead of considering whether “one of” TCC’s primary purposes is political activity, the agency looked at whether “its” primary purpose is political.
That seems to narrow the scope of Washington’s disclosure rules, which the law says “shall be liberally construed to promote complete disclosure of all information respecting the financing of political campaigns and lobbying.”
Billig’s legislation, SB 5991, would provide some relief here. It would require independent committees to register and disclose spending regardless of whether political activity is their primary purpose.
It would require any nonprofit making substantial campaign contributions — of cash or donated services — to disclose spending and top sources of funding.
That’s a great improvement.
But a few tweaks would make the bill even better and avoid creating new loopholes.
As currently written, the bill would not require disclosure unless donations or spending are at least $10,000. That threshold is much too high.
Contrast that with rules for regular political committees. They must name all donors giving at least $25 and provide employer information for those donating $100 or more.
Billig’s bill would create an option for contributors to donate up to $10,000 via nonprofits with no disclosure. That would provide a lot of leeway for companies, special-interest groups and individuals that prefer to keep their political activity secret.
Existing disclosure rules offer better options to trigger disclosure. It would be easier for everyone if these thresholds were aligned.
One option is to trigger disclosure when incidental committees receive or spend more than $2,000. That’s the maximum that any individual or organization, aside from political parties and caucus committees, can give to candidates for office in Washington.
If a group raises or spends more than that, they are serious players and their activity should be disclosed.
Another option is to use the current threshold for “mini reporting” by political committees.
This allows abbreviated reportings by political committees spending less than $5,000 and receiving contributions no greater than $500. Any spending above those thresholds triggers full and frequent disclosures.
Those limits are in place because the Legislature decided that spending more than $5,000 substantially affects elections and the spenders should be disclosed to voters.
The $10,000 threshold would also make Washington an outlier compared to some other efforts to shine light on “dark money.”
California recently updated its campaign laws to require disclosure when contributions or expenditures reach $5,000. Montana’s “dark money” law passed in 2015 requires disclosure of spending above $500.
Billig was receptive to these suggestions.
He said high thresholds for disclosure were needed to get a bill that was palatable to the Senate’s Republican majority. Last year’s version of the bill set the threshold at $20,000, but the measure was still snuffed.
Now, with Billig’s party in control and the threshold lowered to $10,000, he was able to get 25 co-sponsors and pledges of support from others in the Senate.
This is great progress. But the threshold needs to be lower, especially if the primary purpose is to fulfill the mandate of voters who created the state’s campaign disclosure law via initiative in 1972.
It says “the public’s right to know of the financing of political campaigns and lobbying and the financial affairs of elected officials and candidates far outweighs any right that these matters remain secret and private.”