Politics & Government

Campaign-finance disclosure mandate runs into trouble in Legislature

Requirements for more disclosure of campaign funding sources received a unanimous, 49-0 vote in the Senate just last month, yet now they appear stuck there.

Several business trade associations lobbied against the proposal by Sen. Andy Billig. The Spokane Democrat said Republicans who control the Senate have decided not to move his bill forward.

“Nobody’s ever testified against this bill,” Billig said, yet organizations “that spend dark money found a way, behind the scenes, to kill the bill.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler insisted no decision has been made on the bill’s fate. Senate Bill 5153 hasn’t come up for a vote on changes made by the House, leaving it in limbo as lawmakers prepare to adjourn their regular session and enter a special session focused on budgets.

The local branches of trade groups Associated General Contractors and the National Electrical Contractors Association, as well as the Building Industry Association of Washington, are among those raising concerns.

All three groups say they or their local affiliates shouldn’t have to disclose their largest dues payers or other funding sources just because some of the groups’ money goes to campaign contributions.

“The top 10 contributors to AGC could be someone who sponsors our golf tournament,” said Jerry VanderWood, chief lobbyist for Associated General Contractors of Washington. “It could be a tenant in the AGC building in Seattle. It could be a dues-paying member who has no intention of being involved” in politics.

Billig said a group could avoid that problem by raising and distributing campaign contributions entirely through a political committee instead of its general treasury. Washington law already requires disclosure of contributors to political committees so voters can trace that money.

Billig said he understands it can be hard to persuade people to go on the record as political donors by donating to a committee, especially if it would associate them with nasty campaign advertising — but he said such transparency is the purpose of his proposal.

His bill would target nonprofit groups that may not have politics as their sole purpose but that spend $25,000 or more in elections. They would be required to report their 10 biggest donors of $10,000 or more as well as any donor giving $100,000 or more.

VanderWood said contractors support disclosure but want lawmakers to come up with an alternative plan if they want to target people or companies that are hiding “extraordinary” political contributions behind an association membership. Contractors aren’t doing that, he said.

Under the law as it stands, associations that solicit money for a special political fund do have to disclose who gave, as the Grocery Manufacturers Association was forced to do in 2013 after first concealing the sources of donations to a campaign that helped defeat a food-labeling ballot initiative.

But BIAW executive leader Art Castle said adding Billig’s requirement could dissuade companies from sponsoring, say, a home show put on by a local builders’ association that would subject the companies to disclosure as political donors.

And Larry Stevens, a lobbyist for electrical contractors, said the requirements seem to run counter to protections given to political activity by businesses by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Billig sought to tighten the law in 2014 with no luck, but had backing this year from several Republicans and Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Potlatch Democrat who allies with the GOP majority. A group with ties to Democrats called American Values First spent money in 2014 on advertising about Sheldon without disclosing its donors. The group contended it didn’t have to report donors because campaigning wasn’t its primary purpose.

Sheldon said Wednesday the issue had become politicized.

He and Republicans defeated a Wednesday procedural move by Democrats to bring the bill to the Senate floor. The move would have had the Senate formally disagreeing with the House, which had made changes to the bill and approved it on a 65-32 vote.

Schoesler, R-Ritzville, wouldn’t say what objections were being raised about the bill but said it was “still being examined.” Democrats “got impatient about it,” he said.

Senate Democrats said Thursday that they hope the bill can be considered in the coming special session.