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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council passes local campaign finance reform laws

FILE - Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, left, responds to Rick Bocook, right, who was testifying at a City Council hearing about the homeless problem Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane will set up a local system to track campaign money next year following the most expensive City Council contests since at least 2000.

City lawmakers voted 6 to 1 to approve legislation championed by City Council President Ben Stuckart, who argued that the influence of large campaign contributions whose sources are hidden has reached from the federal level into local politics, prompting the need for the city to take action.

“I believe Citizens United has damaged this country beyond repair, but it is the law of the land,” Stuckart said in a sometimes breathless introduction of the measure at the end of the final City Council meeting of the year, referring to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision equating campaign spending by corporations with free speech.

A majority of those testifying, including representatives of the Spokane County Republican Party and the Spokane Homebuilders Association, spoke against the city regulations, saying they created two separate standards for private contractors and public unions who represent city employees. Companies that receive contract awards of more than $50,000 from City Hall will be prohibited from giving to local candidates, while bargaining units representing city workers may still give but must list their contribution amounts on public contracts.

The legislation halves the maximum amount a candidate can receive from any single donor, based on limits set at the state level.

Stuckart said these measures were designed to decrease the influence of deep-pocketed donors and remove the appearance of a conflict of interest for lawmakers and the mayor’s office showing favoritism to private firms. But opponents said the system punished private industry by holding them to a stricter standard than unions, a distinction Stuckart said was necessary on advice from the city’s legal counsel while drafting the bill.

“We put on the table banning city bargaining units from contribution to candiates, and we all came away … saying that’s not legal, and not advisable for City Council to do,” Stuckart said.

City Councilman Mike Fagan cast the lone vote against the new rules, citing the lack of parity between how unions and private companies were treated and noting his own political beliefs.

“Considering that I am considered to be the only conservative on this council, let me assure you I don’t get any support from the unions, ever,” Fagan said. “And it’d probably be a cold day in hell if I ever did.”

The law also targets what Stuckart called “dark” and “gray” money, requiring donor organizations to report their top three contributors to the city for publication online when they make what are known as “independent expenditures” supporting or opposing a candidate, including ad buys. If one of the top three contributors to an organization is itself a political action committee, that group’s top three donors must also be disclosed.

The requirement follows the expensive and sometimes heated City Council races this fall, which saw a political action committee backed by the Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29 release a dubious mailer targeting candidate Matthew Howes’ pizza restaurant, and the political arm of the organization Better Spokane spending thousands to toss incumbents and an initiative that would have fined coal and oil trains through downtown.

City Councilman Breean Beggs was one of those incumbents targeted and worked with Stuckart on crafting the legislation, which was in the works before ads hit mailboxes and the airwaves in the most recent campaign.

“I think it’s really important to do the most good we can, given the constraints,” Beggs said. “And although this will not be the most perfect ordinance to address what folks are wanting, it’s a great improvement over how it’s been.”

Arthur Whitten, the government affairs director for the Spokane Home Builders Association who spoke against the new rules, said after the vote it wasn’t clear why the council needed to enact a new law.

“What was the rush to pass it before the end of the year?” Whitten said.

Stuckart said he didn’t expect the new law to require additional money to enforce, as investigations would be complaint-based and could be handled by the same city staff who’ve been processing sick and safe leave complaints, which will sunset at the end of this year after voters approved a statewide initiative on the subject that shifts the regulatory burden away from City Hall.