Voters would be allowed to make $150 in publicly funded campaign donations to legislative candidates every two years under an initiative aimed at the November ballot.

Share story

Washington voters would be allowed to make $150 in taxpayer-funded donations to legislative candidates every two years under a state initiative proposal preparing to launch this week.

Backers of the measure, aimed at the November 2016 ballot, say it would curb the influence of moneyed special interests by creating the new public campaign-financing system, modeled in part on a “Democracy vouchers” initiative approved by Seattle voters last year.

While some details are still being finalized, supporters of the Washington Government Accountability Act, calling themselves Integrity Washington, have raised $250,000 from two out-of-state nonprofit groups and put down a $100,000 deposit toward a paid signature-gathering campaign.

The initiative’s centerpiece would be a new “democracy credit” system, allowing voters to make up to three $50 contributions to legislative candidates in each two-year election cycle. To be eligible to receive the money, candidates would first have to demonstrate they have support by raising 75 contributions of at least $10 from within their legislative districts.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The wide-ranging proposal would not stop there. It also would make a host of changes to state campaign-finance and lobbying laws, including a $100 limit on campaign donations by government contractors and lobbyists to candidates for offices with power to benefit them.

The measure also would impose a three-year cooling-off period before a former public official could take a job with a firm that lobbied the agency where the official had worked. It also would beef up funding to the state Public Disclosure Commission to enforce the new rules.

“This is about limiting the influence of money in politics and increasing the voice of voters,” said Peter McCollum, campaign manager for the initiative.

With more than 3 million registered voters in Washington, the initiative could prove expensive for the state. But the initiative would cap the cost of the program at $30 million per year — or up to $60 million per two-year legislative-election cycle.

The democracy credits would be given to voters on a first-come, first-served basis.

McCollum said the program could be paid for by canceling the state’s sales-tax exemption for nonresidents who shop here. Backers still are mulling whether to include cancellation of that tax break in the initiative or leave it to the Legislature to figure out how to pay for the democracy credits.

The democracy-credit idea drew criticism from Sandeep Kaushik, a Democratic political consultant from Seattle. “This is a radical, untested and cockamamie scheme,” he said.

While the initiative may be well-intentioned, Kaushik predicted sophisticated labor and business organizations — which already dominate politics — would push their members to essentially bundle the democracy credits to back favored candidates.

“It opens the door to greater opportunity for corruption and gaming the political-finance system,” Kaushik said.

Seattle voters last year brushed off similar objections from Kaushik and others in overwhelmingly approving Initiative 122. Under that law, Seattle voters will be mailed four $25 “Democracy vouchers” every two years to be used for contributions to campaigns for mayor, City Council and city attorney.

The campaign to create a similar “democracy credits” system statewide is being funded by two out-of-state groups: Every Voice, a D.C.-based nonprofit that seeks to fight the influence of big money in politics; and Represent Us, a Massachusetts-based nonpartisan group pushing for anti-corruption laws.

To qualify for the fall ballot, the initiative campaign would need to gather at least 246,372 signatures from registered voters by July 8.