Senate must support the Public Disclosure Commission’s critical role.
WASHINGTON state voters in November 1972 were just reading the first stories of the Watergate scandal when they approved Initiative 276, a measure to put sunshine on the murky world of campaign financing.
The law’s preamble is clear, and a bit righteous: “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.”
The Public Disclosure Commission was created to enforce state campaign-finance laws. The past few years have not been kind to the agency. Budget cuts reduced staffing levels by one-quarter over the past eight years. Creaky online systems make searches of lobbyist activity and quiet campaign contributions unnecessarily painful.
And limited resources delay important investigations of alleged campaign malfeasance. A campaign-finance case against former Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon has lingered since 2012.
The Legislature must, at the very least, stop bleeding the public’s campaign-finance watchdog. A budget proposal by the Republican-led Senate would cut three more staff positions, including the agency’s in-house counsel, and would curtail needed information-technology improvements. An alternative, by the Democratic-led House, would spend $577,000 more than the Senate, would not cut positions and would pay for computer upgrades.
There are other reasons to be concerned about transparency in Olympia.
A Seattle Times story last year noted that mandatory financial-disclosure forms gave voters an incomplete picture of the wealth and potential conflicts of interest of elected officials, including legislators. In response, the Public Disclosure Commission asked the Legislature to raise the maximum reporting category from $100,000 to $1,000,000.
Good idea. It is helpful for voters to know if their senator or representative is solidly middle class or a multimillionaire. But after gaining approval in the House, a Senate committee, with bipartisan support, stripped out that requirement, even as they approved changes that would actually result in less financial reporting. That watered-down bill now sits in the Senate.
The Republican-led Senate also killed a bill that would increase transparency of so-called “dark money” spending in campaigns. Those expenditures are structured to evade usual reporting requirements intended to show who paid for TV attack ads. In April, The Seattle Times editorial board criticized the Senate leadership for failing to put voters’ interests first.
Those bad decisions, combined with the proposed cuts, corrode the clear will of the voters, first stated in 1972, and restated again and again. Open up the windows — and the checkbook — and put more sunlight on campaign financing.