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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Washington Legislature is OK with political dark money

Another year, another death for Andy Billig’s attempt to shine more light on dark money in state politics.

This year, instead of a proposal that drew support in both houses before being scotched by business lobbyists, the Washington DISCLOSE Act was simply bottled up by the Senate majority, never to see the light of day.

“It died a whimpering death,” said Billig, a Democrat who represents the 3rd District in the state Senate.

This should be discouraging to anyone who cares about the ability of, say, PepsiCo or Coca-Cola to secretly throw millions of dollars into a state political issue. And it should be discouraging to anyone who wonders where the allegiance of the state Senate majority lies: with the public’s right to know who’s spending what on elections, or with those who like to keep their political influence a secret.

For two years running, Billig’s efforts to expand public information about campaign spending have crashed into roadblocks in the Senate, with the Republican-plus-one majority keeping it off the floor, unvoted-on. I’ve had little success finding anyone to stand up against the bill in public. Perhaps that’s because lawmakers are embarrassed to acknowledge that they are simply carrying water for the business lobby.

“It’s just like dark money,” Billig said. “It’s this exercise of dark power.”

As limits on spending fall away, disclosure becomes more crucial, unless you view unfettered secret campaign spending as a public good. Billig’s proposal targets one channel of such spending – that of “social welfare” and “business league” nonprofits. These groups may now spend on elections without disclosure, so long as their spending doesn’t represent the main activity of their organization.

Organizations on both sides of the aisle use them to skirt the sunshine. Billig’s proposal would require them to disclose their top donors when their campaign expenses exceed $25,000 in statewide races and $5,000 in local races.

Some of these organizations argue that their members contribute for many reasons and do not want to be associated with political spending. This seems like an internal problem for them to sort out, not a guideline for state law. It also seems like a roundabout way of admitting that the members of the organizations who use this shuffle – whether it’s a trade association or a labor union – don’t mind the spending as much as the disclosure.

This is no small matter. The state attorney general is now suing the Grocery Manufacturers Association in a case that details the great lengths to which some donors will go to try and keep their spending a secret, using the very umbrella Billig is trying to close.

The GMA, a trade association of big food corporations, spent $11 million opposing Initiative 522 in Washington in 2013. I-522 would have required labeling on genetically modified foods, and it failed narrowly at the ballot box. It might not surprise you to learn it was strongly opposed by the people who make Hot Pockets and Butterfingers. But the huge food corporations were coming off an election victory in a similar measure in California, and food execs were feeling stung over criticism they had received in that state for spending tens of millions of dollars.

So the GMA developed a plan to raise and spend money against I-522, establishing a special fund for the purpose while hiding the names of the companies who were funding the effort. The AG’s complaint notes that the activities of the fund – raising and spending money on a ballot measure – made it a political committee by definition. GMA’s plan was to operate under its nonprofit umbrella, identifying the funds only as coming from the GMA – to “shield individual companies from attack,” in the words of a proposal written by the organization’s CEO. They called the effort the “Defense of Brands.”

Eventually, the names of the companies were forced out into the open. They had been quite generous. PepsiCo gave $1.6 million. Nestle USA gave $1 million, as did Coca-Cola Co. General Mills gave almost $600,000. Thirty-four corporations gave more than $14 million, and $11 million was spent to oppose I-522, the AG asserts.

GMA has argued that it was simply exercising its constitutional rights, and that state campaign law is vague. But the AG’s complaint calls the funding scheme among the worst campaign disclosure violations in state history.

Last year, Billig’s bill went through a somewhat astonishing cycle: It was introduced in the Senate, where it passed unanimously. As it moved to the House, the business lobbyists woke up, he said. By the time it returned to the Senate, where it would typically undergo a “concurrence vote,” something happened to that unanimous support.

It died. In the dark.

“There are lobbyists and business interests that have influence in political situations. That’s not news,” Billig said. “But I have never seen such a blatant exhibition of the power of lobbyists to get the bill killed – essentially switching the vote from yes to no.”

This year, the vote stayed switched. Just as he did last year, Billig says he’ll try again.

“I will have a new version of the Washington DISCLOSE Act next session,” he said. “Our democracy is stronger when the public has a clear view of who is influencing elections.”

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

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