The latest avenue of attack on open government and accountability has shifted to campaign finance rules that allow big donors to political action committees to hide from public scrutiny. The Legislature took a small defensive action in the 2013 session by passing a measure that requires political action committees to list their five largest contributors for advertising valued at more than $1,000.
Lawmakers should take more aggressive action this year by forcing disclosure of the biggest campaign donors, whose secret money seems to be playing a more frequent role in state elections.
Last summer, Attorney General Bob Ferguson successfully sued the Grocery Manufacturers Association and forced it to disclose individual donors to its $17 million campaign against the unsuccessful Initiative 522. The ballot measure would have required labeling of genetically modified foods.
Voters have a right to know who is funding the campaigns of lawmakers and ballot measures.
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The U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates for unlimited anonymous money to flow into politics. Instead of creating more transparency, Citizens United spawned more secrecy.
To take advantage of the ruling and funnel obscene amounts of money into campaigns, progressive and conservative interests formed nonprofit organizations under social welfare facades. That allows them to take advantage of Internal Revenue Service rules to shield their donors from public disclosure requirements.
Congress must work with the IRS to close that loophole in the tax code.
Meanwhile, these types of groups are now operating in Washington and other states.
The solution is not to attack the integrity of the state Public Disclosure Commission, as Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, is trying to do, but rather to enact stricter disclosure rules in both Washingtons.
On the federal level, the Disclose Act would require reporting of all expenditures and individual donations of more than $10,000. House Republicans have stonewalled the bill.
But a similar state measure (SB 6098) introduced by Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, holds more promise. Two Republicans signed on as co-sponsors, as did 22nd District Democrat Sen. Karen Fraser.
Billig’s bill would mandate disclosure of individual donors when a political committee receives contributions or makes expenditures more than $100,000 in statewide campaigns and $20,000 in local races.
For example, under Billig’s proposal, the Public Disclosure Commission could have identified individual donors who contributed $250,000 to a committee called Working Washington that promoted the $15 minimum wage in SeaTac.
Washington lawmakers can provide greater transparency in state elections. SB 6098 is a great place to start.