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Shedding light on dark money a struggle in Rodney Tom’s world

However things go in Olympia this session, no one can say the leaders of the Senate haven’t contributed something to the state.

They stood up for secrecy in big-money politics.

A smart, timely, broadly supported measure to block a pipeline of dark money into Washington elections died this week, as the Senate leadership failed to bring it to the floor for a vote. The measure, Senate Bill 6098, would have required nonprofit groups who spend a lot of money in elections to disclose their biggest donors – to play by the same rules as everyone else.

Sen. Andy Billig, the Spokane Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said this was not a case where everything just got busy at the Capitol, and in the crush at the bill cutoff, this one was cut off. This proposal had been passed out of committee and sat on the floor calendar for a week. Bill after bill was brought to the floor ahead of it, until Tuesday’s cutoff passed.

Why? “I could never get a straight answer,” said Billig.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom rides herd on which bills make it onto the floor. Tom, you may remember, is the Democrat who crossed the river in 2012 to join hands with Republicans, helping to create the so-called Majority Coalition Caucus and putting himself in a very powerful position. A Washington Post blog post in January, previewing the legislative session, carried this headline: “It’s Rodney Tom’s world.”

Why did SB 6098 not fit into Rodney Tom’s world? He didn’t return a call seeking that answer.

Billig’s bill was an attempt to close an enormous loophole in Washington disclosure laws, and it’s one that is being exploited aggressively all over the country. Certain groups, ranging from Karl Rove’s Crossroads America to the left-leaning American Families First, claim exemptions from public disclosure rules and paying taxes, because they say they are social welfare groups. They can contribute to and participate in politics, so long as it’s not their primary purpose.

There is some legitimacy, for some groups, to this distinction. Many organizations participate in politics without that being their main financial enterprise. But nonprofit status is becoming the latest fig leaf for big-money donors who want to dump into the trough without accountability. For all the appropriate concern about Citizens United and unlimited contributions, is it these false-front social welfare groups that cast the darkest shadow on politics.

They spent $71 million on TV ads in the latest presidential election, more than the dreaded super PACs. An investigation by ProPublica found that many of these groups engage almost exclusively in political activity, while claiming in tax and campaign filings to be primarily engaged in educational or public welfare work. Often, the groups misreported or hid their political spending, and the largest and savviest of them had disbanded and reformed under other names by the time they submitted tax forms spelling out the true extent of their political activities, ProPublica reported.

These false fronts represent the worst abuses of the system. What happened in Washington last year was a little different. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit representing food and beverage makers. It spent $11 million in the campaign against Initiative 522, the GMO labeling measure that failed in November. A labor-backed group, Working Washington, put $250,000 toward supporting raising the minimum wage in SeaTac. The groups were not required to disclose their donors. (The grocery group was eventually forced to disclose after documents showed it had specifically sought donations for that issue. Had that not come to light, state law would have given them cover.)

SB 6098 would not have required groups to file lists of every $50 donor or dues-paying union member with the Public Disclosure Commission. But it would require groups who are spending $100,000 or more in a statewide race, or $20,000 or more in a local race, to disclose its donors of $2,000 or more.

Which is just as it should be. Dark money is a plague in politics, and nonprofit status is its most effective cloak. In Idaho, for example, you have the Idaho Freedom Foundation – a group that lobbies, writes legislation, advocates for and against bills, and makes no bones about its desire to be the most influential political organization in the state.

And yet, for tax and disclosure purposes, it’s considered a charity.

Washington’s examples are so far not as brazen. But if we support transparency in political spending – and everyone says they do – then shouldn’t we close this Chunnel of a loophole? Shouldn’t we at least know why Rodney Tom doesn’t want to close this Chunnel of a loophole?

“The people who would potentially not like this are probably not going to be comfortable coming out and saying, ‘We oppose this bill,’ ” Billig said. “There has never been any opposition to this bill, even to this day – any public opposition – and by contrast, there has been a lot of public support.”

SB 6098 passed unanimously out of two committees. It should have passed on the Senate floor – or at least have been taken up there, so those who oppose it would be forced to say so.

In the meantime, there’s always next year.

“Absolutely,” Billig said. “Absolutely. It will be prefiled the first day of the next session.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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