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Campaign gift limits likely

Fri., March 10, 2006

Spokane County candidates, and the donors they hit up, may have seen their last $1,000-per-plate campaign meal.

A new state law will soon limit the amount of money that candidates for Spokane County executive offices and judges can raise from individuals, unions, businesses or political parties that want to show their support.

A bill on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s desk says candidates in the state’s four biggest counties – Spokane, King, Pierce and Snohomish – can’t take more than $700 per election from any single donor. If Gregoire signs it, the new rules take effect sometime in June, 90 days after the ink dries.

Because most candidates face two elections – a primary and a general – that means donors could pony up a total of $1,400 during an election year, if candidates account for it properly with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Those are the same limits that govern legislative races. They will also apply to judicial candidates around the state, from Superior Court through Municipal Court.

The proposal, House Bill 1226, moved through the Legislature with little notice from county officials. It was originally written to limit contributions to state Supreme Court candidates in the wake of the 2004 election, in which winning candidate Jim Johnson got contributions totaling more than $100,000 from the Building Industry Association of Washington and Cruise Specialists, Inc. of Seattle. The bill eventually was expanded to include all judicial races, plus the largest counties, and port districts in Seattle and Tacoma.

Starting this year, state Supreme Court candidates will have a limit of $1,400 per donor per election, the same as other statewide candidates, like governor.

Spokane County campaigns traditionally have been low-budget affairs, and for some candidates the new rules will have little or no impact – other than the surprise that they now have limits.

“What’s the likelihood of me raising $700 from anybody?” county Auditor Vicky Dalton asked. A check of 2002 campaign records showed that Dalton did raised $1,000 – once – from the public employees union, but she averaged about $60 a donation, in a campaign that raised less than $4,800.

But some county commissioner races have become more expensive since 2000, in part because of help from the development and construction industry. The Spokane Home Builders Association, for example, gave more than $11,000 to challenger Karl Wilkinson in 2000, in a losing race against then-Commissioner John Roskelley.

Earlier this year, Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris kicked off his re-election campaign with a $1,000-a-plate breakfast.

The strategy quickly produced about $40,000 and criticism from his two announced opponents, Democrats George Orr and Bonnie Mager.

“I don’t mind campaign limits,” Harris said. “If they made it a maximum of $100, I’d just go out and get a thousand contributors.”

If House Bill 1226 becomes law in June, Harris won’t have to give back any of that money because he can divide it between the general and the primary.

And the one contribution of $1,500 he’s received from the Spokane Home Builders, while over the limit, doesn’t have to be returned if the money has been spent, PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said.

Cal Walker, who is running for county sheriff, will also have some accounting challenges.

He has several contributions above the limit, including $5,000 each from Al Rambo, a Veradale retiree, and his sister Angie Nerren.

Candidates covered by the law who have received more than $1,400 from more than any one source this campaign year – and haven’t spent it on a legitimate campaign expense before the law kicks in – will have several choices at that point, Anderson said. Give it back to the donor; give it to charity or give it to one of several state funds.

But candidates who have already reached the limit for a particular donor before the law takes effect won’t be able to accept more money from that source, she said.


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