Too often during the last two election cycles we’ve seen organizations spend big money in Washington state campaigns while refusing – with impunity – to disclose who provided the cash.
This practice should stop, and it would at least be diminished by legislation that has attracted bipartisan backing in the state Senate this year.
“This bill is about bringing dark money into the light,’’ Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, told a legislative committee that heard Senate Bill 5153 last week.
The term dark money, of course, refers to cash from hidden origins that floods into campaigns, often through nonprofit groups, in a way that circumvents the voters’ right to know who is spending to influence elections and government policy.
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Billig introduced similar, milder legislation a year ago, and in 2012 he successfully backed a bill requiring both supporters and opponents of initiatives to post the names of top contributors on their advertising.
This time, Billig wants nonprofits that engage in occasional political actions to register and file campaign finance reports at the state Public Disclosure Commission.
His measure would require disclosure – even if a group’s political activity were incidental to its mission. That claim that political actions were “incidental” was used by a Washington, D.C.-based group last fall to hide its donors in the 35th Legislative District race pitting Sen. Tim Sheldon against Democratic challenger Irene Bowling.
At least a half-dozen members of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus have signed on as co-sponsors in 2015. They include Sheldon, the Potlatch Democrat who votes with Republicans, and Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn.
Last fall, Sheldon was a victim of hidden money thanks to expenditures from an out of state group calling itself American Values First, which is allied with Democrats and refused to disclose its donors.
It sent mailers to Republicans in the district that extolled Sheldon’s support for abortion rights. A second allied group headed by the same person sent mailers to Democrats in the district that attacked Sheldon for wanting restrictions on abortion. The goal was obviously to help his challenger, Democrat Irene Bowling.
There have been other examples of dark money’s hidden role. In 2013, the Grocery Manufacturers Association tried to hide its individual members’ $11 million-plus involvement opposing an initiative that would have required labeling for genetically modified foods. A state lawsuit eventually coerced the group to disclose which of its members donated.
Also in 2013, as Billig points out, the nonprofit Working Washington did not disclose donors after raising at least $250,000 to support a minimum wage initiative on the city ballot at SeaTac.
Billig made one change of substance from last year’s bill, lowering financial thresholds for who must report. It now affects those spending more than $20,000 in a statewide race or initiative and more than $5,000 in a local campaign. But only donors giving more than $2,000 to the PACs would be disclosed.
Those limits seem high: $2,000 per individual donor is a significant enough sum that all voters should have a right to know who is giving it.
If the Senate does not tighten this language, we hope the House will.