Budget must not forget the PDC

All members of the Washington Legislature are keenly aware of the big budget fish they must fry this year — especially with the Supreme Court’s contempt order on K-12 school funding still hanging over their heads. But as legislative leaders resume talks on a two-year spending plan in special session we have a small request.

Both parties should try to remember that the public is more likely to trust their actions and words if the government’s work is done out in the open. A key part of that transparency is giving the state Public Disclosure Commission adequate tools to do its work — to disclose who is financing campaigns and to reveal expenditures by lobbyists who influence public policy.

For too many years, lawmakers have rejected PDC requests for extra funding that would allow a major overhaul of the agency’s website and its electronic filing system. Done properly, a new system would be much easier to navigate for the public, lobbyists and lawmakers.

What’s at issue is not just campaign finance data, but the detailed, monthly expense reports filed by lobbyists. The current system’s glaring flaw is that it lacks a user-friendly search function. A software upgrade could make it much easier, for instance, to learn which lobbyists are taking specific lawmakers out to dinner and how much they spend.

Even lobbyists are getting tired of the current PDC set-up, which is slow and difficult to use online when filing reports. The PDC says some lobbyists are talking about filing reports by hand, the old way of doing business.

Lobbyist spending, according to official filings by lobbyists, totaled more than $56 million last year, including some contributions for campaigns but the lion’s share going for salaries. At least $17 million was reported to the PDC during the first months of this year. A recent Washington Post report said our state was one of six that had more than $100 million spent over a two-year period.

Two years ago, reporters with Northwest Public Radio and The Associated Press did a long-hand tally: They found one senator chairing an energy committee accepted more than $2,000 in free meals — many from the oil industry — in just four months; several other lawmakers accepted more than $1,000 worth of free food and entertainment.

The Legislative Ethics Board then enacted a 12-meal limit per calendar year, which took effect Jan. 1. But without easy public access to data, lawmakers are on the honor system.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, has sponsored legislation for many years that would provide the PDC with better technology, and he’s even suggested a registration fee for lobbyists. This year, he omitted the fee from House Bill 1085, and it passed on a bipartisan vote of 85 to 13 in the House.

The House Democratic budget plan pays for Moeller’s measure, boosting the PDC budget by $607,000 to improve electronic filing and other other information technology. By contrast, the Senate and governor reduced overall funding for the PDC in their budgets, and HB 1085 stalled after a hearing in the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee. The PDC says it could make its most-needed IT investments with about $220,000 while avoiding further staff cuts.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said this week that he supported Moeller’s previous proposals that levied a fee on lobbyists rather than spend general fund dollars for upgrades. He did not say whether the Senate would find dollars in its no-new-taxes budget to cover the agency’s costs.

Moeller’s bill remains alive in special session and deserves action — with money in the final budget to make it work.

Disclosure is in everyone’s interest.