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Campaign finance bill dies in Senate

OLYMPIA – A campaign finance reform bill that supporters said would shine light on “dark money” in politics appears dead after a procedural fight between the two caucuses in the Senate Wednesday.

The bill would have required certain nonprofit organizations that use some of their dues or other donations for campaigns to list their top 10 donors of more than $10,000 and all donors above $100,000. Much stricter limits are set on donors if the organization forms a political action committee, but don’t apply if it makes a direct contribution to a campaign.

Sen. Andy Billig, the bill’s prime sponsor, said Senate Republicans were going to let the clock run out on the bill in response to protect potential donors. The original version of the bill passed the Senate 49-0 on March 11, and had six members of the majority caucus as co-sponsors. The bill passed the House 65-32 on April 10 after some changes were made to the reporting requirements for the nonprofit organizations.

“The same forces that spend dark money found a way to kill the bill,” the Spokane Democrat said.

But Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the action was a response to Democratic “theatrics” that tried to force a quick vote on a bill that needed more scrutiny.

“Campaign finance is complicated,” Schoesler said. “They got impatient.”

It was the second time in two days that Democrats tried to bring up a bill that they believed would die before coming to a vote in the closing days of the regular session. On Tuesday they tried but failed to pass a bill outlawing certain therapies to change the sexual orientation of gay youths.

The campaign finance bill involves organizations set up under the federal tax code as nonprofits – either section 501 (c)4 or 501 (c)6 – that aren’t primarily designed as political, but make “incidental” contributions to campaigns. They can include business, trade and ideological organizations that get involved in political campaigns when key issues arise, using dues or other contributions to their overall fund. Large contributions funneled through such organizations are hard to track because they are undisclosed and mingled with other funds the group receives.

The organizations could set up a separate PAC, in which all of their donors and the amount they give would be listed with the Public Disclosure Commission, Billig said. But some groups had told him they didn’t want to do that because their members don’t want to be associated with political spending, even though they are making contributions. When they began to realize how much the bill would affect them, they began lobbying against it, he said.

Because the version that passed in the House included changes, the Senate needed to vote on it again to move the legislation to the governor.

Voting for the bill was voting for transparency, Billig said in his brief floor speech. “A no vote is a vote for more dark money in politics.”

That prompted Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, to object that Billig was impugning the motives of “the entire body.”

Schoesler said it wasn’t on the list of bills scheduled for a vote on Wednesday.

Padden and others who signed as co-sponsors to the original bill voted against the motion to bring it up, which failed 21-26.

Billig said he made the motion because he was told the bill would not come up before the regular session ended, which is expected to be sometime before Sunday. Schoesler said Republicans remain open to working on the bill but couldn’t say if a new version would be ready by the end of session.

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