In 1992, when then-Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard was promoting an initiative to limit political contributions in Washington, he conceded up front that it would probably be effective for only a few years. In time, campaign strategists would devise a way to circumvent it.
The Fair Campaign Practices Act became law, but, as Pritchard foresaw, additional rounds of legislation have proved necessary. Pritchard would have understood the need for Senate Bill 5021, which has been introduced in Olympia.
Registered voters in this state are familiar with the barrage of campaign mailings that hit their mailboxes every election year, not from candidates but from organizations with grand names like “Citizens for Motherhood and Honesty,” attacking candidates rather than supporting anyone by name.
Less widely understood but just as harmful is the practice of making campaign donations to one organization so they can be regifted to another, and maybe another, until the objectives of campaign finance disclosure – clarity about who is supporting whom – are shredded.
Under present law, meanwhile, the level of penalties that the Public Disclosure Commission can impose for violators is so modest that they’ve become what Doug Ellis, PDC’s acting director, described to a Senate committee last week as “a cost of business.”
“Truth in politics” may have become a punch line, but we believe it should be a solid civic aspiration. That’s why Washington citizens pioneered disclosure laws in 1972 when they passed Initiative 276.
SB 5021 is an attempt to restore the purpose behind Washington state’s proud, four-decade commitment to political transparency. The measure would establish strict naming requirements for political committees to include individuals’ names, parties, offices. In other words, organizational names would have to be accurate and informative, not deceptive.
The bill also would restrict contributions between political committees and would lower the thresholds for requiring electronic campaign reports while increasing penalties for violations to meaningful levels.
Although polls reveal wide public disapproval of the influence of big money in today’s campaigns, political strategists keep getting away with it because they can hide their activities.
Calls for limits on campaign donations and spending, while well-intended, restrict freedom of expression. A better response is to make certain that political expression comes with honest labels to ensure that voters know who’s making which arguments and why.
It’s the latter path that SB 5021 follows, and conscientious voters should let lawmakers know disclosure is the answer they’re looking for.
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