Politics blog

Senate Republicans want to alter makeup of state campaign finance regulator

OlympianJanuary 22, 2014 

Fallout from last fall’s special election in the 26th Legislative District has spurred a Senate Republican proposal to take away the governor’s role in appointing members of the state Public Disclosure Commission. 

Republican Sen. Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup said Wednesday the proposal would "de-politicize" the PDC by using a structure similar to that of the state Redistricting Commission.

The Redistricting Commission was created as a constitutional amendment several decades ago and utilizes two Democrats and two Republicans who must agree to select a fifth, non-voting chair; the idea was meant to take the Legislature out of the job of redrawing political district lines for Congress and the Legislature.

Under Senate Bill 6323, the Legislature’s four caucus leaders would each nominate one member, in effect putting two Republicans and two Democrats on the commission who would then pick a fifth tie-breaking member to serve as their chairman. The measure would retain the current law requirement that no more than three commissioners be from a single major party.

Republican Sen. Sharon Brown of Kennewick, sponsored SB 6323, but could not be reached immediately to comment. But Dammeier – one of 10 Republican co-sponsors of the bill – said during a Republican meeting with reporters Wednesday that it would remove the perception that the PDC has shown bias. 

Asked for an example, Dammeier said the PDC usually takes campaign complaints, investigates them, and offers conclusions well after an election. Last fall, he said, the PDC rendered a decision quite promptly in the case of a major independent spender on the Democratic side in the 26th district Senate race.

The bill looks like it won’t go anywhere – even if the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus approves the bill on the Senate floor. House Government Operations and Elections Committee chair Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, treated it as a meaningless, partisan gesture by Republicans.

“That’s just another bale of tea into the harbor,’’ Hunt said. “It’s a solution looking for a problem. I don’t see where there’s a need to do it.’’

So far only Republicans are voicing complaints about the PDC, which in the past has drawn criticism from all directions.

As it turned out, the Republicans won the 26th district race last November. Republican Rep. Jan Angel of Port Orchard beat out appointed Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, in the most expensive Senate race in state history. At stake was the unexpired term of former senator Derek Kilmer, who had won election to Congress in 2012.

Thomas Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund founder from the San Francisco area, put more than $500,000 into PACs that spent money opposing Angel [amount reported in initial post has been updated].

Data on file at the PDC shows the candidates spent close to $1.3 million total and outside or independent expenditures totaled another $1.8 million. The victory padded the Senate Majority Coalition’s majority to 26-23.

The PDC looked into a large, late contribution that Steyer made to his Washington-based PAC. But the money was intended for races elsewhere in the country, which led to the PDC’s unusually quick determination that nothing was amiss.

But Angel and the GOP believed Steyer was going to target her in a last minute blitz using illegally contributed funds. That never happened.

As it turns out, the PDC currently does not have a Republican among its five members. In fact it only had three Democratic members at the start of the Legislative session after terms for both Republicans had resigned. 

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, was slow to replace one member whose term expired in December 2012. But he appointed former House member Katrina Asay, a Milton-area Republican, on Jan. 16 to fill that position effective Feb. 7.

One other PDC position remains vacant after Republican Barry Sehlin’s five-year term ran out in December 2013.

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