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Governor Gregoire today is expected to sign legislation that was originally intended to curb campaign finance abuses in Washington, although the bill presented to her contains significantly fewer limits on abuses than it started with.
“We’re disappointed that what was originally a serious deterrent to financial shenanigans has been amended to the point of being little more than a minor inconvenience for special interest groups who want to launder campaign money in this state,” says Steve Breaux, advocate with the Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG).
Senate Bill 5021, sponsored by Sen. Craig Pridemore (D-Vancouver), was seen by many as a reaction to misconduct by campaign consultant Lisa MacLean of Moxie Media in a 2010 state senate race that is currently under investigation by the Attorney General’s office. While it originally banned campaign contributions from one political action committee (PAC) to another and required greater disclosure of those involved in the creation and management of PACs, those provisions were carved away by a series of amendments during the legislative process.
What remains in the final bill are technical provisions for the reporting of campaign finances to the Public Disclosure Commission, a minor restriction on PAC-to-PAC transfers, and a requirement that a PAC’s name describe accurately what it is.
“This bill was hotly debated in the original committee hearings and originally opposed by some legislators,” said Breaux. “In the end it passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously, and I think that’s a pretty good indication that it was weakened to the point of being toothless. It evolved from a shark into a guppy.”
When introduced, SB-5021prohibited PAC-to-PAC contributions that have been used to hide the original source of campaign contributions and independent expenditures in political campaigns; the final version allows such transfers as long as the originating PAC has donations from at least ten registered voters who contributed a minimum of $10 each.
According to Breaux, that restriction will do nothing to prevent what amounts to political money-laundering.
“Any special interest that wants to hide a large political contribution can stroll through this loophole with ease,” says Breaux. “George Soros or the Koch brothers could hide a million-dollar gift to the PAC of their choice if they could get ten other people to give ten dollars each to their PAC.”
Although disappointed, WashPIRG believes that there are improvements to campaign finance rules in SB-5021 that will help them and other organizations ensure that political campaigns are playing by the rules.
“Accountability begins with disclosure, so we’re glad to see a requirement that the name of a PAC actually contains the name of a sponsoring individual or entity instead of using a nonsense name like ‘Americans for a Better America’” said Breaux. “We’re also hopeful that lowering the threshold for electronic reporting to the Public Disclosure Commission will help with recordkeeping.”
WashPIRG anticipates working with legislators next session to strengthen campaign finance disclosure laws.
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