At long last, money is headed to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission for a significant upgrade of its financial-filing system for lobbyists. This will make it vastly easier for citizens to track who is spending to influence legislators and other state elected officials.
Lobbyists and interest groups reported spending $56 million to influence legislation and state government policy last year. But finding out how much was spent to influence any one lawmaker’s position has been terribly difficult because the PDC lacked a searchable database for lobbyist spending — unlike campaign finance.
In a year when lawmakers failed to close a loophole that lets the source of independent expenditures by certain groups go unreported, the Legislature’s good deed for the PDC stands out. The final state operating budget provides new and badly needed resources that PDC leaders sought for many years.
The Republican-led Senate and Democratic governor initially proposed funding cuts at the PDC, but as state revenues rose, so did overall state spending. The final two-year budget for the PDC totals $4.7 million, which fully funds all 19.6 full-time positions, gives pay raises to workers and puts $305,000 into technology improvements.
This is a pretty big deal to those who care about government transparency and accountability.
Agency spokeswoman Lori Anderson said that the commission is very happy the Legislature provided funds and that building a new software application is “a priority.’’
“Ideally you would be able to see who is lobbying on a particular issue, how much they spent on that particular bill, who they are contributing to when we are not in session — in granular detail. We know that’s what people want, and we hope to deliver,” Anderson said.
That goal is the right one. The PDC is an agency created by voter initiative in 1972. Its mission is to disclose the financial details of political campaigns, state government lobbying and elected officials. Yet the PDC’s lobbyist-finance reporting system is a throwback to an earlier era and in a few cases still uses paper reports.
The system just isn’t delivering the goods expected by people who use smartphones or tablets.
This matters. Two years ago, reporters with Northwest Public Radio and The Associated Press literally spent weeks compiling lobbyist spending data by examining monthly reports. This intense labor revealed that a Republican senator who chaired an energy committee accepted more than $2,000 in free meals — many from the oil industry — in just four months. And a handful of other lawmakers accepted more than $1,000 in free food and entertainment.
All of that was legal due to a loophole in state ethics law, and the Legislative Ethics Board eventually took steps to limit the abuse. The board enacted a 12-meal limit per calendar year, which took effect Jan. 1.
Without improved public access to lobbyist data, lawmakers are pretty much on the honor system.
It’s not just the public that’s inconvenienced. The electronic filing system for lobbyists is so prone to hang-ups that some lobbyists who prefer to file reports electronically are starting to throw up their hands and consider paper reports again.
There is one lurking problem: There is no requirement that lobbyists use electronic filing, which puts data in a form that’s easy to search. Optical-scan technology may give the agency a workaround, but just in case, Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, plans to introduce a bill to require e-filing by all lobbyists, which legislative candidates already do.
That’s a good plan.