State considers next move on campaign spending

OLYMPIA – State officials are mulling their next steps after a federal judge overturned a state law limiting campaign contributions in the final weeks of ballot measure campaigns.

If the ruling stands, money could flow even more freely to this year’s crop of voter initiatives. Six such measures are on the ballot – the second-most in state history – and state records show the campaigns have raised a combined $32.5 million, with about $10.1 million spent so far.

The law at issue bans contributions larger than $5,000 in the final three weeks of an initiative or referendum campaign. Family PAC, a political group involved in the 2009 referendum on expanded domestic partnerships for gay couples, sued the state last year challenging the contribution limit.

In a ruling last week, U.S. District Judge Ronald Leigh-ton agreed with Family PAC that the limit was an unconstitutional infringement on political speech. But Leigh-ton kept in place a requirement to identify donors who contribute more than $25, turning aside Family PAC’s argument that such publicity might improperly dissuade people from giving to campaigns.

James Bopp Jr., a noted campaign-finance attorney who represented Family PAC, said the Washington state spending limit clearly violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and political association.

“That includes the freedom to make contributions in support of political causes they want to advance,” Bopp said Tuesday. “Now the people of Washington will be able to do what the First Amendment allows and protects.”

State officials still hadn’t decided whether to appeal Leighton’s ruling. But Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for state Attorney General Rob McKenna, said Leighton’s support of the donor reporting law was “a victory for accountability in campaign finance and the public’s right to know who is financing our elections.”

The state Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces Washington’s campaign spending laws, was closed for cost-saving furloughs on Tuesday and unavailable for comment.