Proposed changes in city of Seattle campaign laws are no guarantee that the growing influence of money in local elections will be lessened. But they would be a welcome first step in the right direction.
Five of the nine City Council members are sponsoring legislation that would prohibit holding over surplus campaign money by City Council members, the mayor and the city attorney. The sponsors also want to shorten the amount of time candidates have to raise money for their campaigns.
Right now, money left from one election can be held over for the next, and candidates can start fundraising almost immediately after being elected. The proposed change would ban fundraising until Jan. 1 of the year the incumbent stands for re-election.
In making their case for the changes before the Municipal League of King County, proponents said the changes were “not the end of the conversation.”
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Nor should they be. The council should do all it can to “reduce the perception of corruption,” as the sponsors argue, by restricting fundraising while elected officials are making policy. There’s some untidy history to be overcome in this regard: In 2003, two council members lost their re-election bids after receiving illegal contributions connected to a strip-club owner seeking a rezone at his property. The owner, his son and an associate pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges, admitting they skirted campaign-donation limits.
The proposed changes also show that the council is concerned about the increasing role money has in elections and is serious about doing something about it.
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, main sponsor of the changes, says that since 2001 the average individual contribution has nearly doubled to $223, the percentage of donations under $100 has fallen from 64 percent to 32 percent and the cost of campaigns has gone from $50,000 to $250,000. The amount of money held in candidates’ so-called surplus accounts has gone from $35,000 in 2001 to $371,000 in 2011. All these figures work against challengers to incumbents.
Now, money can be held over to use in a campaign for a different office, as long as written permission is given by the donor. Under the changes, candidates would have to return unspent money to donors, give it to charity or transfer it to a political party or the state treasury.
The proposed rules, if passed by the council, should apply to the 2013 mayoral race since several council members who could become candidates for that office have $60,000 or more in held-over campaign money. Mayor Mike McGinn has raised more than $65,000 for his re-election campaign.
Restricting the amount of time candidates can spend on fundraising would help dispel the notion that politicians spend more time on getting re-elected than they do on the public’s business.
The Municipal League opposes the changes, arguing that all it will do is encourage candidates to ask for bigger contributions in a shortened amount of time. The League also raises the specter of legal challenges. But if that were a valid reason for not making changes, nothing would ever get done.
The effect of these changes may not lessen the influence of money as much as the proponents would like, but the conversation is started. Other ideas welcome.