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Opinion >  Editorial

Legislature should pass ‘dark money’ bill

A bill aimed at unearthing the names of anonymous political donors has died more than one mysterious death in the Washington state Senate. But now that Democrats are in charge of the chamber, Sen. Any Billig’s perennial “dark money” bill should see the light of day.

Under campaign finance law, political action committees must report the names of their donors. But nonprofit groups that are formed ostensibly for non-political purposes do not. So some interest groups form both.

For instance, there is a Better Spokane nonprofit and the Better Spokane PAC, which is a pro-business advocacy group. There’s also a progressive Fuse Washington nonprofit and a FUSE Votes PAC. Contributions to the PACs must be disclosed, but if the nonprofit gives to the PAC, anonymity can be maintained.

Billig’s prefiled bill, which has 25 co-sponsors, including Republican Sens. Joe Fain and Mark Miloscia, would force into the open the top contributors when a nonprofit engages in political activity, such as giving to a PAC. The top 10 donors giving $10,000 or more would be disclosed, as would all donors giving $100,000 or more.

The aim is to force political players who give to nonprofits to instead give to PACs, which are subject to full disclosure. Anyone can log onto the Public Disclosure Commission website and track PAC donations.

In 2015, Billig’s bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and was sent to the House, where it also passed after some tweaking. Those changes required another vote from the Senate, but leadership sat on it. It wasn’t allowed to the floor for a vote in 2016 either.

The current bill, SB 5991, is in line with voters’ desires for transparency in government. They have a right to know who is influencing their elected officials.

Both parties have benefited from anonymous donations. Both parties have been burned by them. Now they should join forces and eliminate them.

In 2013, a group called Working Washington contributed $250,000 to the $15-an-hour minimum wage ballot measure that narrowly passed in SeaTac. Journalists were unable to identify individual donors. Also that year, the Grocery Manufacturers Association spent more than $11 million to defeat Initiative 522 (food labels for genetically engineered products), but avoided timely disclosure of its donors.

The larger problem traces back to the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court tossed bans on independent expenditures. Ever since, dark money contributions have been on the rise, as powerful interests take advantage of this loophole.

The court’s ruling didn’t preclude adopting a disclosure law, but Congress has failed to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would provide much-needed transparency. Billig’s bill would accomplish this on the state level.

SB 5991 should improve public discourse, because groups could no longer raise unlimited funds to bash away. Plus, large donors would have their names associated with those attacks. It would end the safe haven for people who don’t have the courage to publicly state their case.

The Legislature should quickly adopt this bill, and banish the dark arts from Washington campaigns.

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