Two campaign-finance related measures are on the Nov. 8 ballot. Both may receive voter support, but only one is likely to change our money-soaked political system any time soon. Though we support them both, we offer up a few concerns.
Initiative 1464: This is the most sweeping measure and the one most likely to have an impact. Backed by state and local chapters of the League of Women Voters and other good-government advocates, I-1464 tries to fix a number of recent political failures in the Legislature.
I-1464 creates a voluntary public-financing tool for legislative elections. It does that by granting voters three $50 “democracy credits,” which they can contribute to any eligible legislative candidates of their choosing. To be eligible for such funds, a candidate must agree to limit the size of individual contributions accepted, and the candidate must raise at least $10 each from at least 75 private donors.
The goal is to give voice to voters who currently may not have one, put focus on issues rather than fundraising and entice candidates to shun big donors. This program could be extended to statewide and judicial races in 2020.
The initiative would pay for itself by repealing a sales tax exemption enjoyed by shoppers from states and Canadian provinces that have little or no sales tax or where they offer a reciprocal tax break for Washingtonians.
This is a hotly debated exemption. Some argue that repealing the exemption may harm small businesses in border counties. Another concern is that lawmakers may need to close this exemption just to meet obligations for K-12 school funding.
I-1464 addresses other issues related to campaign finance and transparency long neglected by the Legislature. In that way, it resembles I-276, which more than 40 years ago created our state Public Disclosure Commission to regulate campaign finances; it also codified laws for open public records and open public meetings into a single major reform.
I-1464 enacts a three-year cooling off period for legislators and key state officials before they can lobby former colleagues. If approved, our state would have the longest cooling-off period in the nation, according to initiative sponsors.
I-1464 also requires disclosure of the names of top individual contributors to PACs that pay for independent ads. This would hamper the ability of shell PACs to shield sources of funding in ads.
A bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, sought to impose such restrictions on PACs in 2015, and it passed unanimously in the Senate. After slight amendments in the House, the bill was blocked by the Senate leadership, which was lobbied heavily by special interests.
The initiative also boosts the penalty authority of the PDC to $50,000 for multiple and serious violations — without the PDC having to ask the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and file a lawsuit against a violator. Lawmakers previously lifted the top penalty to $10,000 from $2,500.
We would oppose this measure for its complicated, sweeping nature and cost — if we thought there was any chance the Legislature could act to blunt the influence of money in campaigns and legislating. We’d have preferred a trial use of “democracy credits” in judicial races but now support I-1464 as a necessity.
It is unfortunate and telling that a proposal to curb the impacts of big money on campaigns has itself required big donors. More than $660,000 was contributed to Integrity Washington, the pro-1464 PAC, from Represent Us (in Massachusetts), $575,000 from investor Jonathan Soros of New York, and $500,000 from Connie Ballmer of Medina.
Initiative 735: In a roundabout way, this measure seeks to end the corrosive effect on elections from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case. That ruling essentially equated corporate campaign spending with individuals’ free speech rights, inviting even more independent spending in campaigns. Today some PACs may conceal the source of their contributions, which has given rise to the term “dark money.”
I-735 asks Congress to begin a constitutional amendment process so that corporate contributions are no longer equated with First Amendment-protected political speech.
Voting for this may feel good, but its impact is distant. Consider that decades have passed without ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, truly a no-brainer update to the U.S. Constitution if ever there was one. But I-735 is worth a try — if nothing else, to tell our congressional delegation that voters want campaign reforms.
The alternative to these measures is to embrace the familiar darkness.