Better Spokane is a non-profit organization focused on empowering the Inland Northwest to reach its full economic potential. Like many groups, one arm of our organization includes a Political Action Committee (PAC). Our PAC stands to greatly benefit from the passage of the City Council’s so-called, “Fair Election Code.” So, why then did we urge the Council not to pass it? Why did we urge the Mayor to veto and celebrated when he did?
The fact is, this ordinance doesn’t create a better election system, it doesn’t create an equal playing field, and it won’t lead to a better Spokane. This ordinance will have lasting unintended consequences resulting in more money and influence for PACs and Union organizations.
The measure would do a number of things. Some of it we think constitutes poor policy, while one item in particular is quite egregious.
First, it limits the amount of money an individual can contribute to local political candidates to 50 percent of the state threshold – today an individual can donate up to $1000 per election, but this ordinance reduces that to $500. This means that the power and voice of each citizen will forever be half of what it was, while political committees, which have no contribution or spending limits, will greatly increase their influence in local elections.
Next, it creates a local election donation cycle and stipulates that no money can be raised outside of that timeframe – including a candidate’s own personal dollars. This could make life easier for incumbent elected officials, who already benefit from their power of incumbency and now won’t have to worry about an opponent starting an early campaign against them.
The other major change – and this is where the measure goes from being not well thought through to outright shocking – is that it bans contributions to local candidates by private city contractors, including anyone with an ownership share in the firm or any sub-contractors they hire, while outright exempting unions and bargaining groups from this ban.
The ordinance says that contractors have donated “$88,000 to current elected officials,” which the Council claims has created the “appearance of quid pro quo corruption.” However, what they omit is that labor unions have given current elected officials more than $100,000 in estimated direct contributions and at least another $65,000 in indirect contributions.
The Mayor said it best in his veto statement, “This ordinance bans campaign donations from certain City contractors – whose political influence is already shielded by the City’s strict low-bid process – while freely permitting donations from public-sector unions that negotiate their contracts behind closed doors.”
The public doesn’t get to know what takes place during negotiations with collective bargaining groups, however, the bidding process for private contractors is open for public view. So, why are these rules not being equally applied to both sides (or not at all) to “ensure fair play,” as the Council suggests is the intent? Legal questions abound. So far, the City Council has stated that the legal research they’ve conducted is “privileged” and not to be released to the public.
Most would agree that some campaign finance reforms are warranted, so what’s the best way for us to move forward?
Rather than going it alone and creating a series of difficult to enforce regulations, and rather than creating a whole new bureaucracy – and the costs that go along with it, we should instead be working with our local legislators to strengthen and increase funding for the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, the statewide agency already tasked with overseeing and enforcing campaign finance laws. The legislature should also pull together a working group of people from across the political spectrum, from both sides of the Cascades, and with varying levels of policy and campaign experiences to develop more thoughtful solutions.
A campaign finance system that would seed more money and influence to PACs at the expense of individual candidates, or that would empower public unions, while depriving private contractors is a recipe for a broken election system and a loss of public trust.
The Spokane City Council should take this opportunity to rethink this endeavor.
Michael Cathcart is Executive Director of Better Spokane.
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