Two bills promoting transparency in government and political campaigns deserve passage by the Legislature.
One proposal, passed unanimously last week in the state Senate, is fundamentally a tweak to campaign finance reporting. It requires disclosures of funding sources by nonprofit groups that sometimes spend money to influence our state elections.
The second proposal requires all lobbyists to file spending reports electronically. This would require software upgrades that ease filing for lobbyists; it also would let the state Public Disclosure Commission make its collected data more usable and accessible to the public — particularly in the area of lobbyist gifts such as free meals.
The first proposal, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Andy Billig of Spokane, is aimed to counter such incidents as occurred last fall in the 35th Legislative District. Two groups with ties to Democrats (and which had overlapping personnel) spent money in the Senate race and it was not clear who was actually behind the independent expenditures.
In fact, the two groups were taking opposite stances in the campaign, which appeared confusing but was by design. One group, American Values First, targeted likely Democratic voters with a message about Sen. Tim Sheldon’s conservative votes in what looked like an attempt to scare off Democratic support; the other group, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, targeted likely Republican voters with a message about Sheldon’s more moderate votes on abortion rights and immigration in a bid to scare off GOP support.
Sheldon, you might recall, is the conservative Democrat from Potlatch who caucuses with Senate Republicans and typically votes with them. He was challenged by a Democrat in November after both candidates advanced in state’s top-two primary, and to win re-election in the swing district Sheldon needed full support from GOP voters.
State Republicans and Sheldon’s Senate GOP allies denounced the third-party spending and called on the state to investigate and punish the PACs.
Under Billig’s Senate Bill 5153, an incidental political committee like the American Values First group would be required to file as a political committee if it spent more than $25,000 for a campaign and it would need to list its top 10 donors of $10,000 or more.
The concept makes sense.
The other measure, House Bill 1085, requires lobbyists to file monthly financial reports electronically — just as the vast majority of candidates and political committees have filed campaign finance reports since 2002. Lobbyists were allowed since 2002 to do so voluntarily.
HB 1085 is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jim Moeller of Vancouver who has pushed a version of his bill for a half-dozen years or more. Among other things, it requires the PDC to upgrade its campaign-finance software to make it easier for lobbyists to file reports and for the public to use the website to extract data.
If approved, Moeller’s bill would carry an estimated cost of $583,747 over the next two years, according to a legislative fiscal report. Unlike past years when Moeller suggested a lobbyist registration fee, the bill does not identify a new revenue source. That means it must compete with public schools, state worker salaries and other programs for funding.
A similar proposal died in the Senate last year. But this bill deserves action — and funding this year.