January 4, 2009 in Region

Spin Control: Dig deep and it won’t cost a dime

By The Spokesman-Review
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Jim Camden
(Full-size photo)

The Legislature returns to Olympia in eight days facing the biggest budget crisis in decades, but we all know the honorables will do little but talk until mid-March, when the next revenue forecast comes out.

They’ll need to fill up nearly two months with other things. The question is: Will those be things of substance or things of fluff, such as last week’s proposal by State Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, to designate Aplets and Cotlets as the state candy?

(Think of the nasty floor debate with the Almond Roca supporters.)

How about something that wouldn’t cost the state a cent, and could illuminate a portion of the campaign system that most voters don’t even realize is pretty dark?

Legislators could show some backbone and strengthen the rules for out-of-state groups intent on dumping money into Washington elections via “independent” campaigns. The rules for such groups are as tough as marshmallows, so almost anything would be an improvement.

Nearly $25 million was spent on independent campaigns last year, with almost half dumped into the governor’s race. The money went mostly for television commercials, which helps explain why Chris Gregoire v. Dino Rossi wasn’t so much a political campaign in late October as a no-holds-barred cage match being waged with 30-second TV spots.

A significant portion of independent money – $7.5 million overall, and about $6.8 million in the governor’s race – came from groups with addresses outside Washington state.

The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees dumped as much as $1 million at a pop into hit pieces against Rossi. (Think they’d like to have that back after seeing the gov’s budget proposal?) A group calling itself the Washington State RGA was pouring six figures a week into whacking Gregoire.

State laws make out-of-state independent money among the hardest to track for a voter trying to figure out who’s giving what to whom.

Take the Washington State RGA, which spent almost $5 million on the governor’s race. The name is a bit confusing – some might say deceptive, but let’s not throw stones – because its address isn’t in Washington state, but in Washington, D.C. It’s also helpful to know that RGA stands for Republican Governor’s Association.

Where did it get its money? From the Republican Governors Association, which shares the same Pennsylvania Avenue address and doled out cash in million-dollar chunks to Washington State RGA throughout the fall.

And where did the parent association get its money? That’s a bit harder to track, because what we’ll shorten to the RepGovAssoc needs only file a form with the state Public Disclosure Commission called a C-5, which requires an out-of-state independent organization to list the name, address and employer of any donor of more than $25.

The law does not require such organizations to file over the Internet, and the PDC’s computerized campaign contribution system – which admittedly is among the best in the country – does not track such donations in its Web site database. The figures are contained deep in the scanned pages of C-5 forms, often on type that makes one squint and move closer to the computer monitor.

Unlike in-state donors, who are limited to a maximum of $5,000 to an independent campaign in the last three weeks before an election, out-of-state donors can give whatever amount their hearts, and bank balances, can spare. Also unlike those large but late contributions from in-state donors, which must be reported on special “last minute” contribution forms, the October contributions to an out-of-state independent might not show up until after the general election ballots have been counted.

Sometimes one can find the pea when one knows how to watch a shell game. If one knows where to look on the Nov. 10 report of the RepGovAssoc, you can find more than two pages of five- and six-figure donors, both private and corporate, that helped cover Wash State RGA campaigns in October. One might even note the largest was $500,000 from Paul E. Singer, on the 36th floor of a Fifth Avenue skyscraper in New York, the home of Elliott Management.

Elliott Management is a hedge fund company, and Singer is its founder and principal – and, according to various other Internet sources, a campaign money bundler par excellence. This may sound churlish, but the half a mil Singer spent for Rossi and against Gregoire seems about as good an investment as some things hedge funds bought in recent years.

The U.S. Supreme Court says campaign contributions are political speech, which makes them hard to limit. But that doesn’t mean the Legislature can’t set better standards for reporting, making them file online, immediately, with full disclosure of address, employer, job … and maybe even a home phone number so one could call big donors like Singer and ask why it’s worth a half mil to them for Rossi to beat Gregoire.

The PDC can’t do that on its own, but the Legislature could.

That is, if they aren’t bogged down in the designation of an official state candy.

Spin Control is a weekly column by veteran political reporter Jim Camden. Contact him at jimc@spokesman.com, or (509) 459-5461.


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