The pernicious trend of campaign contributors finding hideouts in the tax code hit Washington last year, so Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, wants the Legislature to flush them out into the open.
Changing the definition of “political committee” just might do the trick.
At present, some groups can influence campaigns without having to disclose their contributors because they’re formed as nonprofits under sections of the Internal Revenue Service tax code that grant anonymity to donors. No disclosure, no public backlash. It’s a perfect set-up for solicitors and deep-pocketed special interests, but it’s bad for democracy.
Two examples show why greater transparency is needed in state elections.
The online news site Publicola recently reported that a group called Working Washington contributed $250,000 to the $15-an-hour minimum wage ballot measure that narrowly passed in SeaTac. But other than finding an affiliation with the Services Employees International Union, Publicola and the Public Disclosure Commission could not identify individual donors.
Last summer, the state attorney general’s office had to force the Grocery Manufacturers Association to release the names of contributors to its campaign to defeat Initiative 522 (food labels for genetically engineered products). But, as Billig notes, if GMA had financed its political activities from reserves, rather than solicited its members, it wouldn’t have had to disclose the sources of millions of dollars.
Billig’s solution is to force disclosure when organizations’ campaign-related spending crosses particular thresholds: $100,000 in statewide races and $20,000 in local ones. This would shine a light on politically motivated groups trying to influence elections from the shadows, without discouraging the lower level activity of legitimate nonprofits.
Voters have made it very clear they want transparency and accountability in government and elections. The Public Records Act and the Public Disclosure Commission are products of a 1972 ballot measure that passed easily. But the election game has changed since then. Courts have tossed out many of the post-Watergate limits on campaign spending while expanding First Amendment protections for contributors, including corporations and unions.
As a result, “dark money” is on the rise in political campaigns. Nonprofit groups and trade associations spent $309 million in the 2012 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and only a portion of that money was subject to disclosure because of tax code loopholes. Congress and the Internal Revenue Service need to fix that.
In the meantime, Washington legislators can limit the shadowy machinations in state and local elections by getting behind Billig’s proposed bill.