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Editorial: Bipartisan? Yes, but this free ride still bad politics

A recent bill in Olympia received near-unanimous support, which is rare these days. So whatever the issue was, it must’ve had merit, right? Wrong. Not when both political parties are self-dealing in a bid to get taxpayers to pay for their private business.

Such is the case with House Bill 1860, which calls for Washington taxpayers to continue to cover the cost of electing precinct committee officers for political parties. A total of 142 of 147 members of the House and Senate voted for the bill.

In the section of the bill that gives the “pro” arguments, proponents, presumably with a straight face, point to the fact that the bill is bipartisan. And it’s true. Both parties would be given an equally free ride. Proponents also mention that costs would be lowered because the bill would end write-in candidacies, and the terms for PCOs would be lengthened from two years to four years.

We have a suggestion for Gov. Chris Gregoire for lowering public costs even more: Veto this bill.

Political parties don’t have any greater claim to the public purse for their private business than do Rotarians, fraternities and sororities, all of whom elect officers on their own dime.

The bill is a byproduct of the political parties’ objections to the way the state had historically conducted elections. The voters liked the independent nature of the blanket primary. The parties did not, and they were successful in getting it tossed on First Amendment grounds (freedom of association). That gave rise to the top-two primary, which maintained the preference for independence among Washington voters. The parties objected again, but this time the system did pass constitutional muster – except in one area.

A U.S. District Court judge flagged the PCO elections, because the ballot allowed voters unaffiliated with a party to have a say in selecting party officers. These elections of precinct committee officers have always been free riders on election ballots. While cities, counties, schools and other public agencies have to pay for their portions of elections, political parties have been given a pass.

In court, the parties argued that the state had no right to tell private parties how their officers would be chosen. But as Secretary of State Sam Reed told The Spokesman-Review in 2010, “If they’re private associations, what are taxpayers doing paying for precinct committee officer elections?”

The answer is that members of these parties write the rules that grant their private organizations exemptions from paying election costs. For example, the 2010 primary election in Spokane County cost $381,600. Had the parties been charged election costs as are local governments, their bill would’ve been $339,361 – nearly 90 percent of the total. In fact, the town of Rockford and a library and fire district had to pay extra to help cover the parties’ share.

The parties want to be considered private when it comes to conducting their business, so they can maintain control. But they want to be considered public when it comes to avoiding those business expenses.

The governor needs to put an end to this self-serving charade.

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