Politics & Government

PDC finding it hard to get money to make upgrades to its campaign-finance web site

Though Washington is a technologically innovative state, its campaign finance agency’s Web systems are struggling to keep up with the times after years of reduced funding.

And the outlook for improvements isn’t good.

The budget for the Public Disclosure Commission is cut by 2 percent in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed spending plan for 2015-17, including elimination of three employees that would leave staffing at fewer than 17 full-time equivalent positions.

“It would cause us to fall significantly further behind in our ability to collect and share information that the public increasingly demands to know about,” PDC executive director Andrea McNamara Doyle said Wednesday.

The agency had suggested the staffing cuts, including elimination of a vacant in-house legal counsel position. But it also wanted to invest potentially $200,000 into upgrades making it easier for candidates and lobbyists to file reports and for the public to find and understand them.

Inslee’s budget does make $24,000 in improvements to the agency, while reducing spending overall by $81,000 to $4.05 million over two years. That includes $8,000 for a case management system for managing its customer service workload, including complaints about violations of the law, investigations, requests for public records and help desk queries.

The agency also would receive $10,000 to replace an antiquated phone system with one that would be managed by a service provider and another $6,000 to enter into a leasing program for office computers.

Inslee’s budget office has indicated the PDC’s requests were among more than 120 different information technology spending requests received.

“The governor’s budget includes more than $200 million in cuts to help balance the budget. The PDC, like all state agencies, did not receive funding for every new spending request,” state budget director David Schumacher said in a statement. “We support the agency’s technology modernization efforts and included funding in the governor’s budget for those high priority, low-cost solutions that will move the agency forward.”

PDC chairman Grant Degginger had argued in a Dec. 5 House committee work session that the agency needed money to get back in sync with the public’s expectation for modern technology.

Degginger said some state Senate races had more spending — when outlays by candidates and independent groups are counted — than the roughly $2 million that agency gets in an entire year to collect and disseminate campaign finance and lobbyist spending reports.

“If you are not staying up, you are falling behind,” Degginger said of technology. “We have fallen really far behind.’’

Doyle told the committee that campaign spending has soared in recent years, while the public demands more information about campaign and lobbyist spending on an increasing array of electronic devices. Her budget shrank by more 25 percent since 2008 while campaign finance complaints tripled.

Her staff also spends more and more time guiding lobbyists, candidates and the public through the system, and some lobbyists are going back to paper filing of reports because the online system is so frustrating.

“It’s a troubling trend. We basically are facing a Hobson’s choice on a daily basis as to how much time and effort our staff can put into simply maintaining what we have versus making new improvements or making new features available,” Doyle said.

She said the agency once was recognized as having one of the best websites in the country, but it now is “barely adequate” in a world of higher expectations.

Some lawmakers appear to be taking heed. Rep. Ross Hunter, the Medina Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said improvements are needed at the PDC — including finding a way to implement the Legislature’s new 12-meal limit for freebies that a lawmaker can accept from all lobbyists in any given year.

Rep. Bruce Chandler from Granger, the top Republican on the House Appropriations, said the PDC needs to be able to carry out its important disclosure job.

“I do think if they want reduce expenses somewhere and then redirect it, I think we should probably be able to work with them,” Chandler said.

The PDC faces stiff competition for the money. Lawmakers also must meet court mandates to improve funding for K-12 public schools, mental health wards, foster care and other programs — and agencies across the board are trying to regain footing after cuts during the economic downturn.