Olympia campaign finance reforms languish in election year

  • By Jerry Cornfield
  • Wednesday, February 17, 2016 11:44am
  • Local News

There appears to be little interest in reforming the state’s campaign finance laws in advance of this year’s elections.

Bills targeting the flow of so-called “dark money” into campaigns and to expand reporting requirements for existing political committees await action in the Senate and House.

And time is running out. Non-budget bills must pass out of their chamber of origin by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

A Senate bill that could force some liberal and conservative nonprofit associations to identify their donors continues to be a source of controversy.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, is the prime sponsor of the legislation which had the dubious distinction in 2015 of getting passed by the Senate then blocked when it returned for concurrence.

Senate Bill 5153 would require organizations spending more than $25,000 on elections to disclose their 10 biggest donors of $10,000 or more.

Its target is the flow of big checks into independent political committees formed by liberal and conservative groups to influence the fate of elections and ballot measures.

He said he’s retooled this year’s version to redefine when many of these types of political committees would be subject to the reporting requirement. Most business groups and organizations which opposed the bill last year because they might be affected would now be exempt under the new language, he said.

As a result, he said, a couple groups are no longer opposing it. But some still are.

“They stand in the way of major transparency improvements because of an obscure possibility where they may want to hide their campaign donations,” he said.

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is too. His opposition may keep the bill bottled up without a vote.

“I just don’t completely trust Senator Billig’s intentions on this one,” he said, without elaborating. “I don’t feel his intentions are above board.”

Sheldon has firsthand experience with committees whose source of money is hidden from public view. One targeted him in the 2014 election cycle.

He said he’s filed a complaint against the group with the Public Disclosure Commission and wants to see how it gets resolved before supporting any changes in law.

Billig insisted the bill is “quite simple. It increases transparency. My motivation is to improve our campaign finance system so the public receives full disclosure.”

Meanwhile, in the House, a less ambitious bill is in the Rules Committee.

House Bill 2697 seeks to make several changes sought by the PDC. These include requiring all campaign finance reporting to be done electronically and make out-of-state political committees and nonprofits follow the same reporting requirements as in-state committees and nonprofits.

*This post has been modified to correct Sen. Andy Billig’s political party.

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