Sen. Andy Billig’s bid to illuminate secret political contributions died in the last Legislature. But subsequent campaign shenanigans that threatened the Republicans’ hold on the Senate have drawn more bipartisan support for the idea.
Last year, two Republicans signed on as co-sponsors: Sens. Pam Roach and Don Benton. Now, three more are on board with a new version, SB 5153: Sens. Mike Padden, Joe Fain and Brian Dansel.
A conservative Democrat, Sen. Tim Sheldon, is also a co-sponsor, and for him it’s personal. Sheldon was one of two Democrats who crossed over to caucus with Republicans last year, creating a Senate Majority Coalition. This gave the GOP control of the chamber. Democrats were not amused, and they targeted Sheldon, of Potlatch, Washington, for removal in the last election.
A group called American Values First pretended to support Sheldon by spending more than $27,000 on mailers touting his alignment with liberal causes. The goal was to rile Republican voters without whom he may not have gotten elected. He was running against another Democrat. Republicans tried to determine the source of the funds, but the group’s nonprofit status shielded it from disclosure.
The first time Billig ran the bill, two other incidents showed why greater transparency is needed.
In 2013, a group called Working Washington contributed $250,000 to the $15-an-hour minimum wage ballot measure that narrowly passed in SeaTac. Journalists were unable to identify individual donors. Also that year, the Grocery Manufacturers Association spent more than $11 million to defeat Initiative 522 (food labels for genetically engineered products), but avoided timely disclosure of its donors.
The blame rests with the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2010, the justices turned campaign finance upside down with its Citizens United decision, which expanded First Amendment protections for contributors who no longer have to disclose who they are. Ever since, “dark money” contributions have been on the rise: a total of $216 million in the recent midterm election.
Congress needs to fix tax-code loopholes that encourage secrecy, and pass greater disclosure requirements.
In the meantime, the Legislature can do its part by passing SB 5153, which would force disclosure when campaign-related spending exceeds $25,000 in statewide races or $5,000 in local contests. This would expose groups trying to influence elections from the shadows, without discouraging the activity of small nonprofits formed as legitimate social welfare organizations.
The Public Records Act and the Public Disclosure Commission are products of a 1972 ballot measure. Voters have made it very clear they support transparency and accountability.
Now that both parties have been burned by dark money, they should team up to shine a light.