State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, made it into the political news recently. The FBI has been looking into her campaign fundraising.
What is strange is that Sen. Roach has said out loud what everyone walking the halls of the state Capitol knows: There is an intimate connection between campaign contributions, lobbying and legislators’ decisions on bills to support and to oppose. But our elected legislators are not supposed to publicly acknowledge these connections.
In 2014, Sen. Roach was campaigning for re-election. She was opposed by a fellow Republican, then-state Rep. Cathy Dahlquist of Enumclaw. Roach was trying to raise money for her campaign. By email, she reminded the Spokane private utility company, Avista, that she’d just been appointed to a legislative energy-policy advisory committee. Sleazy? Absolutely! Stupid? Yes. But, when these sentiments remain unspoken, absolutely commonplace.
What are we to expect when campaigns cost more than $200,000? If candidates don’t succeed raising money, they aren’t considered legitimate. So they spend a lot of time on the phone, organizing fundraisers, meeting lobbyists and the heads of political action committees, all in pursuit of campaign dollars. Who wouldn’t be surprised by legislative votes; just follow the money.
In the 44th District there is a real race between John Lovick, Democrat, who is the former Snohomish County executive and Janice Huxford, a Republican from Lake Stevens. Lovick has raised $47,000 and Huxford has raised $57,000. Whose on Huxford’s side? Premera, Regence, Ace Hardware, the Washington Food Industry Association, and the Trucking Action Committee. How about Lovick? The grocery store workers union, the Snohomish FireFighters, the teachers’ union, the state troopers and service employees. Who as a legislator will consider the public good?
How about unopposed candidates? Take for example Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe. He doesn’t have an opponent. Why would he need any campaign funds? But they have piled in, with Altria (Phillip Morris tobacco), 7-Eleven, Anhaueser-Busch, Chevron, the American Chemistry Council, PHRMA, Boeing, and Washington Banking PAC all contributing at least $900. Will Senator Pearson consider the public good of, for example, reining in drug prices, or will he be careful not to disturb the current status quo of the drug corporations and their high prices and profits?
Sen. Roach has merely pulled back the curtain on candidate-campaign contributors-legislative interactions. We don’t like what we see, but it happens all the time.
Is there a solution to this not-so-subtle corruption of public decision making? Yes! An unusual gathering of citizens, including tea party leaders, the League of Women Voters, and Connie Balmer,wife of ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer, are supporting Initiative 1464, the Washington Government Accountability Act.
This initiative will limit donations from lobbyists to candidates to $100. I-1464 also sets up a voucher system, sending three $50 vouchers, called Democracy Credit contributions, to every voter in the state of Washington. As a voter, you decide if you want to contribute these vouchers to a legislative candidate. So instead of begging for $1,000 contributions from affluent residents, candidates would be motivated to request $50, $100 or $150 contributions from regular citizens, and actually give them a reason to make these donations. To be a qualified candidate to receive democracy vouchers, the candidate must receive at least 75 cash contributions of between $10 and $50. If they choose to participate, they cannot accept other contributions to their campaigns, be those from Boeing or Comcast or Jeff Bezos. They cannot contribute more than $5,000 of their own money for their campaigns. Their campaigns are limited to $150,000 to raise and spend. So they can’t buy their elections, and neither can the corporations and their lobbyists in Olympia.
Where does the money come from for Democracy vouchers? Right now, if you don’t live in Washington but you buy things in Washington, you don’t have to pay our sales tax. When my sister-in-law from Oregon comes up for Thanksgiving, or all those cruise boat passengers spend time in Seattle, they buy stuff and it’s all exempt from the sales tax. We pay it. They don’t.
Closing this sales tax loophole will provide the financing for Democracy vouchers. That would put an end to voiced and unvoiced quid pro quo between lobbyists, candidates, elected legislators, and corporations in the halls of Olympia.
Our democracy would actually reflect the will of the people!
John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, www.eoionline.org. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.