Lawmakers are working on a bill to increase transparency among campaign-financing committees, including making it more difficult to obscure sources of money during elections.
Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, and supporters said the measure would ensure voters know who is behind campaign materials and help boost public trust in elections and the legislative system.
“Citizens should not need training from Sherlock Holmes in order to decipher who is serving up campaign propaganda and trying to influence their vote,” Craig Salins, executive director of Washington Public Campaigns, a statewide organization that advocates for fair elections, told lawmakers at a hearing Thursday.
In August’s primary, political consulting firm Moxie Media created dozens of political committees and shuffled money among them, avoiding rules to disclose their funding sources – the Washington State Labor Council and other liberal interest groups – on attack-mail pieces.
Moving money around in that way has become common, but Moxie Media has become the most well-known practitioner since the firm came to public attention for promoting a conservative candidate to take away votes from Democratic Sen. Jean Berkey of Everett and elect a more liberal candidate.
Attorney General Rob McKenna has sued the consulting firm and founder Lisa MacLean, accusing them of violating current state campaign-finance laws in the process of hiding spending from voters.
“While the Moxie Media case is a high-profile example and clearly the most egregious example, it is far from the only one,” Pridemore said.
MacLean declined comment Thursday. Previously, she has said Moxie Media has taken its compliance obligations seriously and will keep doing so. Labor Council President Jeff Johnson said Thursday the council likely would support Pridemore’s bill and said secretly attacking a candidate over positions the council shares was a mistake.
“That will never happen again,” he said.
Pridemore’s proposal would impose stricter regulations on the naming of political action committees to avoid the potential for hiding the origin of campaign funding. It would require that the title of a committee include the name of its creator, the name of the candidate it directly supports or opposes, the office sought by that candidate and the year in which the person is campaigning.
It also would prohibit committee-to-committee transfers of contributions, except among political parties or party caucus groups, and would lower the monetary threshold amounts at which donor names must be reported.
The bill would also enact harsher criminal and civil punishments for violators of state public disclosure laws.
While opponents of the bill agreed with the importance of transparency, they found the naming requirements cumbersome, and the exemption for political caucuses and parties unnecessary.
Initiative promoter Tim Eyman had a deeper issue with the bill. He said it violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
“How can the government pass a law that tells people and groups what they can call themselves?” Eyman asked at the hearing.
PHONE ADS AND ‘PUSH POLLS’
Another campaign-disclosure bill being considered would set up disclosure requirements for election campaign phone calls, an area that state law does not strictly regulate.
House Bill 1038, sponsored by Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, would require groups making 500 or more similar phone calls for a candidate or ballot measure and all groups conducting persuasive polls, or “push polls,” in an election include the sponsor’s name, city and state at the beginning of the call.
“It’s truth in advance and that’s what we’re all about,” Appleton said in a hearing on the bill Thursday. “We do it for consumer protection, we do it for banks, but we don’t do it here.”
The bill comes after record-breaking spending in the 2010 election, especially by groups trying to influence public opinion on ballot measures.
Staff writers Katie Schmidt and Jordan Schrader and The Associated Press contributed to this report.