Governor’s budget leaves election watchdog to beg

When a growing supply of money is being injected into political campaigns from a number of sources, it seems an odd time to continue cutting the budget of the state’s official campaign finance watchdog.

Created by public initiative, the Public Disclosure Commission is responsible for receiving, examining, processing and making available the financial reports supplied by candidates and campaigns as well as investigating complaints involving campaign donations and finances. The process, in addition to providing information to voters, provides the “sunshine” that encourages political campaigns to follow the rules.

Earlier this month at a forum on campaign finance reform in Edmonds organized by the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County, Grant Degginger, the current PDC chairman, said that budget cuts in recent years as well as antiquated computer equipment have made it difficult at times for the agency to complete its work in a timely manner. And time is of the essence for an agency that deals with time-sensitive material. Reports and rulings on complaints released before an election can factor into voters’ decisions. After the election, the information is of limited interest.

Degginger noted the agency was requesting $200,000 in its budget for computer upgrades to improve online access. It was also hoping to avoid further reductions of its staff.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget, according to an Associated Press story on Friday, sets aside $20,000 for technology upgrades and proposes cutting the PDC’s budget by 2 percent, which will result in the layoffs of three of the agency’s employees. That’s on top of earlier cuts in recent years that have reduced the size of the agency to less than 20 employees.

Especially in a year when the state will have to focus much of the budget on education and transportation, it’s no surprise that some agencies are going to get less than what they had hoped for, regardless of demonstrable need and service to the public.

But democracy and fairness in elections requires an able watchdog, particularly when more and more money is pouring into campaigns, sometimes from sources not eager to publicize their participation.

A state record of $32.5 million was spent by competing campaigns for I-1183 in 2011, which ultimately privatized liquor sales in the state. Two years later, the battle over I-522, which would have required labeling for genetically modified foods, generated $30 million in donations, $22 million of that for the “no” campaign.

The PDC investigated complaints against the campaigns for and against I-522.

With that much money coming in to run campaigns and pay for advertising, couldn’t a fraction of that be used to make sure everyone is playing by the rules?

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