Legislation before the Seattle City Council would limit the amount of money incumbent office holders could carry over to another campaign. Several council members, including some who have been mentioned as possible candidates for mayor in 2013, have more than $60,000 in surplus funds from their 2011 re-election campaigns.

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Seattle City Council incumbents looking to keep their seats last November had, by that January, collectively amassed half a million dollars for their re-election campaigns. Challengers — and most may not have even entered the race that early — had raised just $175.

The growing size of incumbent campaign war chests — coupled with the increasing costs to run for office in the city — has prompted City Councilmember Mike O’Brien to propose limiting the amount of money that can be rolled over from one campaign to the next and the length of time candidates can spend raising it.

“We see a growing influence of money on elections at the national level. We know it’s happening at the local level, too,” O’Brien said.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission unanimously endorsed the proposed changes in June, but the King County Municipal League opposed them in July, saying a shorter window to raise funds might actually help incumbents, who already have a name advantage.

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The Muni League also was concerned about legal challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2010 that limiting political contributions by corporations or unions was an impermissible limit on political speech.

“Of course we want ethical elections. Of course we have problems with how campaigns are financed. But in the wake of (that decision), putting Seattle in the position of a lawsuit seems risky,” said Vanessa Lund, who wrote the Muni League’s opinion.

On Wednesday, the City Council Government Performance and Finance Committee will consider legislation that would prohibit incumbents from carrying over cash to their next campaign. It also would limit fundraising to the calendar year of the election.

Councilmembers Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw and Nick Licata all support the legislation.

O’Brien said there are several troubling trends in city elections. The average contribution to candidates has grown from $84 in 2001 to $224 in 2011. The reliance on donations greater than $100 rose from 37 percent of the total to 68 percent during the same decade. And the average cost of campaigns from 15 years ago has gone from $50,00 to $250,000, he said.

How the proposals will affect the 2013 race for mayor, for example, is unclear. Potential challengers who are now on the City Council — Sally Clark, Burgess and Harrell — each have more than $64,000 in surplus funds from their 2011 re-election campaigns.

Under current rules, they could ask if donors would be willing to transfer the donations to the race for mayor. If they acted before the new rules took effect, they would be allowed to carry over cash.

If they chose to abide by the new rules, they could return funds to donors this fall and ask for the money to be given again in January.

Mayor Mike McGinn is the only current candidate for mayor. He’s raised a little more than $65,000 through July 31.

But money isn’t the only factor in winning elections. Former Mayor Greg Nickels raised almost $600,000 for the 2009 election and lost in the primary.

Bill Sherman, a Seattle attorney and member of the Ethics and Elections Commission, said the proposals are very unlikely to affect the influence of money on Seattle campaigns.

But he said the blackout period on fundraising could eliminate a perception that legislation pending before the council is subject to a “pay to play” influence. He also said future campaign donations would have to go to the race for which they were originally given.

“Anybody expecting these two proposals to have a dramatic effect, either for good or ill, will be disappointed,” Sherman said.

But former Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck said he thinks the proposed changes to campaign financing have the potential to level the playing field.

“Incumbents have been socking away money, piling it up. People considering running usually don’t jump in until 12 to 18 months before the election. They have a lot of catching up to do,” Steinbrueck said.

But “leveling the playing field” might not be a constitutionally permissible aim, said William Maurer, executive director of the libertarian Institute for Justice’s Washington state office.

He said governments can restrict campaign contributions only for the purposes of fighting corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Courts have struck down limits on rollover funds, he said. And while time limits for fundraising have been upheld in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he questions if they would pass muster with the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Government cannot restrict how much can be spent on political speech,” Maurer said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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