The GOP-led state Senate should reverse a bad decision to kill a “dark money” campaign finance bill.
“DARK money” is the apt name for a type of political spending that seeks to influence voters without disclosing who is paying for the influence. The misguided Citizens United ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates for nonprofit groups that creatively exploit federal and state campaign disclosure laws.
The Legislature appeared poised to put the spotlight on dark money this session — until the bill died suddenly last week, for murky reasons. ESB 5153 would have increased disclosure requirements on out-of-state groups that swoop in, often to blast voters with negative TV ads. The bill also would have allowed voters to know who was cutting the biggest checks to dark-money groups — the top 10 donors above $10,000 and all donors of $100,000 or more.
ESB 5153 passed unanimously out of the Republican-led Senate and passed through the Democratic-led House with a 2-to-1 margin. The vote counts underscore that dark money is a bipartisan problem. It has flowed into the campaign opposing the recent initiative to require labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms, and it was used to target state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, a renegade Democrat who helped hand control of the Senate to Republicans.
Last week, however, the Senate’s GOP leadership tied up the bill on a procedural motion. The bill’s prime sponsor, state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, indignantly tried to rally support on the Senate floor, saying: “A yes vote is a vote for transparency. A no vote is a vote in favor of more dark money in politics.”
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It died on a party-line vote, with Republicans voting no. State Sen. Mark Schoesler, the Republican majority leader, later offered a variety of reasons.
He cited technical concerns by the Public Disclosure Commission; but those had already been addressed. Schoesler cited the threat of a partial veto by Gov. Jay Inslee that would benefit labor unions that support Democrats; the bill, however, was written to avoid such crassly political hijinks.
Schoesler also cited the need to prioritize the Senate’s precious time for education and budget matters. Yet just moments before ESB 5153 was killed, the Senate spent 10 minutes honoring the Federal Way High School basketball team.
The most plausible reason for the death of the Dark Money Elimination Act is that some business groups, which traditionally support Republicans, objected. Groups on the political left had also raised concerns, but those were not sufficient to kill the bill.
Campaign finance would not be so hard for lawmakers if they put the voters’ interests above their own. With the Legislature returning to Olympia for a special session, the Senate has the chance to redeem itself. Pass ESB 5153 and turn the lights on to expose dark money.