Washington state must improve disclosure rules so the public knows who is spending what to influence public opinion, policy and ballot-measure outcomes.
WASHINGTON lawmakers and regulators must bring more transparency and accountability to the powerful forces raising billions for transit projects in the Seattle area.
Doing so is not anti-transit. It’s good government. Improving disclosure of lobbying and campaign spending will benefit Sound Transit and other public agencies by increasing public trust.
As reported Sunday by Times opinion columnist Brier Dudley, shortcomings in disclosure rules leave the public in the dark about who is spending what to influence state and regional transportation policy, public opinion and ballot measures.
Columnist Brier Dudley will be responding to reader questions from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday online. Read the project and join the conversation by going to: st.news/transitspendingq-a
Readers can post questions any time in the comment thread.
Legislators and the Public Disclosure Commission should respond by improving disclosure requirements for grass-roots lobbying activity.
They should clarify that campaigns seeking to influence local ballot measures, as well as state measures, must fully report their activities.
Public agencies should also be barred from funding private advocacy groups that lobby to increase funding of the agencies. Seattle advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) received more than $1 million over the last decade from public agencies that benefited from TCC’s work to increase transit spending via ballot measures.
The IRS should scrutinize whether TCC is truly an educational organization eligible to receive tax-deductible donations, and where education overlaps with lobbying and politics.
State policymakers must also strengthen disclosure rules and bring transparency to special-interest spending that influences voting and policy via nonprofit organizations such as TCC.
The goal is not to limit advocacy or end transit spending. This is about upholding the law, particularly Washington’s public disclosure law, established by a voter initiative in 1972.
Transparency required by this law is more important than ever as people are increasingly distrustful of government, diminishing their faith and engagement in public affairs.
Washington’s disclosure law requires that “political campaign and lobbying contributions and expenditures be fully disclosed to the public and that secrecy is to be avoided.”
It says the “public’s right to know of the financing of political campaigns and lobbying and the financial affairs of elected officials and candidates far outweighs any right that these matters remain secret and private.”
This is because “public confidence in government at all levels is essential and must be promoted by all possible means,” the law says.
“All levels” includes local ballot measures, which may now involve billions of public dollars.
The largest example is Sound Transit 3, a regional measure last November that raised $54 billion.
Yet voters still don’t know how much big construction companies working on the project contributed to TCC, which takes credit for ST3’s passage and winning dozens of other transit-funding measures.
This contributes to distrust of Sound Transit, which is now the costliest project in state history. It’s a jumbo 30-year mortgage that takes a large share of tax dollars the Puget Sound region will generate over the next generation.
Lawmakers are right to be examining how ST3 ballooned from the $15 billion measure they thought they authorized in 2015 to the $54 billion plan on last November’s ballot.
TCC received at least $351,855 from Sound Transit but says that public money wasn’t used for campaigning or lobbying.
Improving transparency should not be a partisan issue. TCC is just one example of nonprofit advocacy groups of all stripes that are taking money from special interests.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” ruling made disclosure of campaign funding an even greater priority for the public.
State policymakers should not hold back in fear of the transit lobby’s political might. They are beholden to the people — and the state’s good governance laws — not the special interest du jour.