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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ben Stuckart targets ‘dark’ and ‘gray’ political money with city campaign finance law

FILE – Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart speaks  Feb. 12, 2017 at Gonzaga University. Stuckart plans to propose a tax on firearm and ammo sales within city limits, similar to a measure approved in Seattle in 2015. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Ben Stuckart wants the city of Spokane to play a role in policing its political spending.

A new draft law, which the City Council president hopes to have before lawmakers before the end of the year, would create new reporting requirements within city limits mandating the disclosure of donors for currently-unregulated nonprofits.

The proposal mimics efforts at the state level by Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, that Stuckart says will lessen the influence of what is called “dark” or “gray” money: Political contributions whose source is obscured from public view.

Stuckart’s proposal comes as another local campaign season revs into gear, and, as in the past, political committees and nonprofits are producing advertisements targeting City Council candidates and local initiatives. That type of top-ticket funding is drowning out the influence of individual voters donating to campaigns, Stuckart said.

“I’d rather have candidates that are out doorbelling, rather than going after big donors,” Stuckart said.

The new law would cap the amount an individual can give to a candidate at $500 for each election, down from the current maximum of $1,000. Local candidates would only be able to collect political contributions during an election’s calendar year, and city bargaining units giving to campaigns would have to disclose their contributions.

Private companies that have signed contracts with the city worth more than $50,000 would be barred from giving to a local candidate.

Violations would result in a $261 fine, and enforcement would fall to a city employee currently tasked with investigating violations of the city’s sick and safe leave policy, which will revert to state enforcement at the beginning of next year.

The law would target groups like Better Spokane, a nonprofit that formed earlier this year as a social welfare organization whose donors are exempt from public disclosure. The group also created a political action committee, an entity that collects contributions for campaign purposes and reports those expenses and donations to the state.

Better Spokane’s political arm has been active in several local races, including opposing the coal and oil train fine initiative and efforts to oust Breean Beggs and Candace Mumm from the City Council.

While the Better Spokane nonprofit hasn’t made cash contributions to any political candidate or in support of a particular initiative, Michael Cathcart, its executive director, has been working on those political campaigns.

The work has been given a monetary value, for the hours and space used, as “in-kind contributions” on financial filings with the state filed by organization’s political committee.

Under Stuckart’s proposed law, the Better Spokane nonprofit would have to reveal its top 10 donors to the city because of that political activity.

Michael Senske, chief executive of Pearson Packaging Systems and a Better Spokane board member, said that while he agreed with the goal of transparency, requiring such disclosure could unfairly link nonprofit donors with political activity they may not agree with.

“If this became kind of fodder for partisanship, or political gamesmanship, some of our donors would have significant concerns about it,” Senske said.

The Better Spokane nonprofit formed as a nonpartisan group earlier this year in consultation with attorneys, Senske said. While influencing politics and policy is part of the group’s mission, the agency also has goals outside of the political arena, including business recruitment and civic education.

Stuckart said he’s been working on reforms for months, and wasn’t targeting any group specifically with his proposed ordinance.

“This is a suite of reforms,” Stuckart said. “That’s just an example of dark money.”

In response to Stuckart’s criticism, and after speaking with Billig about his state-level legislation aimed at curbing dark money, Better Spokane put out a statement this week identifying Senske and fellow board member Fritz Wolff as the donors that have provided the $20,000 in contributions that has funded Better Spokane’s political activity to date.

“We wanted to be as transparent as possible, and just get it out there,” Senske said.

Stuckart applauded the post, but said it still didn’t go far enough to reveal donors.

“It’s still dark money,” Stuckart said.

Billig said his bill, too, was not aimed at any particular organization, noting that certain trade groups engaged in the same type of dark money tactics in other areas of the state.

“The legislation that I’ve proposed would require transparency for nonprofits,” Billig said. “That would apply to Better Spokane and other groups.”

Billig’s bill would task the state’s Public Disclosure Commission with collecting information on nonprofits acting politically.

Another nonprofit that has spun off a political arm is Fuse Washington, which identifies itself as an advocate for progressive causes. The group has made campaign contributions to Beggs, Mumm and Kate Burke, a candidate for City Council in the northeast.

Like Better Spokane, Fuse formed a political committee where they report political spending and contributions. The organization has also given cash directly from its nonprofit arm to its political committee. Earlier this month, the organization made a $50,000 transfer, according to state disclosure filings.

Aaron Ostrom, executive director of Fuse based in Seattle, said the vast majority of the group’s political funding comes from individual donors who are disclosed. The group will occasionally make transfers, which are currently allowed under state law, in an effort to balance the organization’s budget while waiting for political contributions.

“Occasionally I’m forced to” make the transfers, Ostrom said. “But it’s something I would rather not do.”

That activity would also trigger reporting of Fuse’s nonprofit donors under Stuckart’s proposed law, because the political committee had given directly to candidates running for city offices.

Ostrom said Fuse does not make contributions from its political arm to other political committees, transfers that are often called “gray” money because they create an unclear path back to who made the contribution. Stuckart’s proposed changes would require disclosure of top contributors to organizations making such donations on campaign advertisements, rather than just listing the name of the organization, as is currently required under state law.

Under the new law, the Safest City Spokane political action committee, one of the top donors financing a controversial mailer targeting City Council candidate Matthew Howes sent out last week, would have had to reveal that its largest contributor was Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29. That fact was not listed on the advertisement, and would require navigating through disclosure documents to discover.

Cathcart, the Better Spokane executive director, said he believes in Stuckart’s efforts to bring transparency to campaign finance. But he believes enforcement was better left to the state.

“We continue to get involved in these issues, that are outside the scope of city government,” Cathcart said. “I don’t think we need to create a bureaucracy to regulate something the state should do.”

Billig said such legislation could bolster efforts in the Legislature to pass more forceful campaign reporting policy. If Spokane adopts such regulations, it would join Seattle, which established a panel to enforce local campaign finance regulations decades ago.

“It’s good policy,” Billig said. “I’d be glad to see it pass at any level.”

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