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Spending worries campaign watchdog

OLYMPIA – Washington’s campaign-finance watchdog is growling about the more than $2 million in independent advertising that poured into the recent primary election.

Independent expenditures – typically attack ads bankrolled by groups on their own, rather than by the candidate – nearly doubled every four years from 1994 to 2002.

Since then, they’ve nearly tripled.

“The only reasonable conclusion you can draw … is that the entities – the corporations, trade associations, unions – have taken control of the election process,” said Public Disclosure Commission member Mike Connelly.

Connelly, also the Spokane Valley city attorney, said the PDC must do whatever it can “to return control of that election process to the people.”

After a long report Thursday detailing “who gave, who got, and how much,” as PDC Executive Director Vicki Rippie put it, the commission voted unanimously to have staffers come up with suggestions to clamp down on independent advertising. A hearing is slated for the commission’s next meeting, likely in October.

Most of this year’s primary spending was in two races for seats on the state Supreme Court. Most came from building contractors and their allies. Other big spenders included labor unions, the Tulalip and Puyallup Indian tribes, businesses and lawyers.

Large amounts of campaign cash from a few wealthy sources “make a mockery” of the limits on donations to candidates themselves, PDC Chairwoman Jane Noland said.

“The very system that we have is being undermined,” agreed member Ken Schellberg.

Not true, said Erin Shannon, a spokeswoman for the primary election’s biggest spender: the Building Industry Association of Washington. Despite the BIAW pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into ads touting candidate John Groen and bashing Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, she noted, Groen lost.

“We certainly didn’t have a disproportionate influence,” she said.

Such arguments underestimate voters, she said.

“I don’t think they’re little sheep that need to be herded by the PDC,” Shannon said. “If voters have the information as to who’s paying for what, that’s the most important thing.”

And such disclosure, she said, is already the law.

The PDC commissioners aren’t alone in their concerns. Alexander – who just prevailed in the most expensive court race the state’s ever seen – said he intends to create a task force after Election Day to consider changes. Among the possibilities: a state-paid primary election voter guide and public financing of political campaigns, with tax dollars used to dilute the effect of big-money groups running independent ads.

“I really want to look and see how it’s working in other states,” said Alexander.

There have been federal efforts to limit campaigning by corporations and trade groups for more than a century, PDC attorney Nancy Krier said. An early proponent was President Theodore Roosevelt, who was leery of companies amassing great wealth and influence. Courts have upheld some limits – such as a $25,000 donation limit for federal candidates – and struck down others on First Amendment grounds. Oregon’s attempt to limit contributions by people who don’t live in a candidate’s district, for example, was shot down. So were proposed bans on corporate spending to influence ballot measures in Massachusetts and Montana.

Maybe the state cannot ban independent expenditures, Noland said, but it may be able to limit them and require more disclosure about where the cash comes from.

Some lawmakers are also pushing for changes. But Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, said voters seem leery of public financing for campaigns.

“We have these hearings and people say ‘How dare you think about using taxpayer dollars for campaigns,’ ” said Haigh, chairwoman of the House committee that deals with election laws.

Alexander said one obvious alternative to judicial elections – having judges appointed by a governor, instead of elected – seems unlikely to fly here.

“We’ve been electing judges since 1889,” he said, “and I don’t think the public’s of a mind to do it another way.”


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