Following the cash in Washington elections is tough

Mar 20, 2012

OLYMPIA, Wash. – We’re hearing a lot these days about Super PACS and who’s funding them. At the state level, Washington gets high marks for requiring full disclosure of who’s bankrolling political campaigns. Even so, a new public radio study highlights weaknesses in Washington – especially when it comes to transparency.

It’s not always so easy to follow the money.

Let’s say you’re a Washington voter and you want to know who’s giving to the leading candidates for governor. So you hop on the Public Disclosure Commission’s website.

“Oh! Okay. So it tells you how much they’ve raised, how much they’ve spent," said Dawn Gibbs, a volunteer with the League of Women Voters.

But she’s never used the PDC website. So we asked her to give it a test-drive. She quickly finds the candidates for governor. I ask her to click on the list of donors to Democrat Jay Inslee.

“Wow, is there ten pages?”

The tricky part

There’s actually many, many more than that. But the top six largest checks came from the Washington State Democratic Party. Nearly half-a-million dollars total. So what if Gibbs wants to know who contributed to the Party? That gets a bit trickier.

“Hmm.” Gibbs struggles to find the report. “Maybe if we view the actual reports. No. I’m not sure. ... If I wanted to know who donated to the Democratic Central Committee so that they could donate to Jay Inslee, I have no idea where I’d go.”

As Gibbs discovered, finding out who’s funding the funders is not an exercise for novices.

Integrity ranking

Overall, Washington ranks as the third most transparent and accountable state in the nation. That’s according to a new State Integrity Investigation. It was conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International. But the report did find in the area of campaign finance the information can be pretty difficult to find even if it’s disclosed.

Let’s follow the money through the contributions of Martha Knox of Olympia, a Democratic donor.

“I am relatively new to this level of giving and really trying to figure it out and I’ll be honest it’s confusing,” she said.

She and her husband recently stepped up their political contributions.

“Our recent circumstances changed and we are very fortunate at this time and so we are giving more."

But Knox is limited by state law in what she can contribute directly to an individual candidate. She and her husband have both maxed out to gubernatorial hopeful Jay Inslee.

A check to the party

So Knox recently wrote a several thousand dollar check to the state party. She didn’t earmark it for any one candidate. The party supports lots of aspiring office-holders, but remember it’s also given Inslee nearly half-a-million dollars. The State Integrity Project considers this a loophole. But Knox is unapologetic.

She says, look, you can only give a statewide candidate $3,600.

“And those limits are actually really quite low for a person of means. And they’re quite low when you think about what it costs to run a campaign, how much advertising cost, how much venues cost. It’s very, very expensive.”

Election law attorney Greg Overstreet agrees. He believes the campaign limits are artificially low, saying they've "probably kept up with the cost of inflation, but not the cost of campaigns.”

The State Integrit y Survey gives Washington high marks for having strict caps on individual contributions. But Overstreet calls those limits “meaningless.”

“If they want to spend more than that people will just figure out ways to do it,” he said.

Like contributing to the political parties or to Political Action Committees, PACS, where there are no limits.

Overstreet for one would like to see the caps eliminated altogether.

“You would see more individuals being up front and saying, ‘Yes, I donated $10,000 in this race and my name is x’ which would be good. And you would see fewer PACS and you would see less influence from a political party, which I think is also a good thing,” Overstreet said.

Some limits on parties

Political parties are limited in how much they can give to their candidates. It’s 90-cents per registered voter. But when it comes to PACs, the sky’s the limit. And in recent years this type of spending in Washington has exploded.

Consider this: According to the Public Disclosure Commission, third-party spending in Washington campaigns was just a million dollars in the year 2000. By 2008, that number was nearly $24 million.

Complicating things, interest groups on both the left and the right have been known to register multiple PACs. This makes it harder to trace the money back to the real interest group funding the campaign. In Washington, disclosure is the law, but the law doesn’t say you have to make it easy to find who’s writing the checks.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network.