In late January, as lawmakers got down to the business of writing legislation, special-interest groups got busy as well - writing checks.
According to more than 1,000 pages of state campaign records examined by The Seattle Times, interest groups representing business and labor have made at least $278,000 in political contributions that benefit lawmakers this year at the same time they’ve lobbied the Legislature for an array of tax breaks, pay raises and freedom from government regulations.
The contributions were made despite a 1992 law intended to shut off the flow of special-interest money while the Legislature is in session. Initiative 134 barred lawmakers from accepting campaign contributions from a month before they convene to a month after they adjourn.
The letter of that law does not appear to have been broken. The contributions have not gone directly to legislators. Instead, they have gone to political organizations that will use the money for next year’s state legislative campaigns.
Campaign-financing watchdog groups say the contributions represent a loophole in the law and undermine the goal of stemming the influence of special-interest money.
“It’s like pushing in a balloon, the money just goes someplace else,” said Teresa Purcell, executive director of The Center for Political Reform, a group founded in January with seed money from the Bullitt Foundation to examine the role of money in politics.
Both major parties solicited and accepted the money, although Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature, have received the greater share of special-interest money this year - about 85 percent.
The Legislature’s leaders - Senate Majority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, and House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee - contend the so-called session freeze has worked. Because money is channeled away from lawmakers and to the parties, they say, interest groups can no longer give money to committee chairs as they are deciding whether to hear bills pushed by the groups.
Instead, contributions have gone to the state Democratic and Republican parties, and to four political committees connected to Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate.
The parties use the money to hire political consultants, conduct polls and run get-out-the-vote drives that will be important to legislators in next year’s elections. The spinoff caucus committees, like the House Republicans’ Speaker’s Roundtable and the Senate Republicans’ Leadership Council, will use the money to recruit and train candidates for the Legislature.
In all, the parties and legislative caucuses have taken in more than $500,000 since the first of the year, but about half of it was small donations from individuals not registered as lobbyists or political-action committees.
Records of the state Public Disclosure Commission show that PACs and their lobbyists have made contributions during the most important times for lobbying during the session - when bills are being considered in committees and just before several procedural deadlines.
With encouragement from legislative leaders, the contributions increased sharply two weeks ago in the home stretch of the legislative session.
Among the timely contributions:
On Jan. 17, Paul Allen’s Football Northwest gave the state GOP two checks totaling $5,000, just as it began trying to sell a stadium-financing proposal to a skeptical Legislature.
Football Northwest, which has an option to purchase the Seattle Seahawks if it can get a new stadium financed, followed up with a $3,500 check for a state GOP fund-raiser April 9, the same day Allen personally lobbied in Olympia for the stadium. The money is in addition to the $10,000 Football Northwest gave each party and the $5,000 it gave each of the four spinoff caucus committees in October.
Football Northwest lobbyist Bud Coffey said the contributions do not ensure any results. He likened them to dues for joining a business association. “It shows we respect their situation of having to raise money and says we hope they respect ours,” he said.
Large contributions were made during the second week of the legislative session, when committees began working in earnest. Contributions to the state Republican Party included two $10,000 checks Jan. 23.
One came from Blue Cross of Washington and Alaska a week before the House Health Care Committee began considering a bill state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn has called a “shopping spree” for the insurance industry.
The other came from US West Communications during intense lobbying involving the state’s phone system. The contribution came two days after the Senate Energy and Utilities Committee began discussing ways to open up local phone service to competition - an issue in which the state’s largest local phone company had an interest.
On Feb. 10, tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds contributed $5,000 to the state Republican Party, four days after a bill was introduced in the House to weaken enforcement of laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors. The bill went on to pass the House and Senate Commerce and Labor committees but failed to pass the full Legislature.
More than half the special-interest contributions made during the first 13 weeks of the session came during just four weeks - each before a critical deadline.
The week of March 3 was especially important. Bills had to pass the committees to which they were assigned to stay alive, and then pass either the House or Senate the following week. Interest groups and their lobbyists contributed $59,000 that week.
Contributions dropped to $5,000 the following week.
The contributors say the timing was just a coincidence.
“There’s no connection with any hearing. I’ve never done that and I never will. The money doesn’t make a hill of beans of a difference,” said US West lobbyist Tom Walker.
“A $5,000 contribution is nothing,” said Coffey, the Football Northwest lobbyist. “If we were talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe. But there’s no influencebuying with $5,000.”
Indeed, the contributions have hardly meant a slam-dunk for legislation. Bills pushed by US West to ease the company’s ability to raise local phone rates failed in Labor and Commerce committees of both the House and Senate, for example.
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