Washington voters face question of campaign finance reform

Initiative 1464’s voucher system would give voters three $50 “democracy credits” that they can use in state races every two years.

Supporters of a proposed campaign finance reform ballot measure arrive to turn in boxes of signed petitions in Olympia in July. (Rachel La Corte/The Associated Press)

Supporters of a proposed campaign finance reform ballot measure arrive to turn in boxes of signed petitions in Olympia in July. (Rachel La Corte/The Associated Press)

By Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Washington voters soon will decide whether to make the most sweeping changes to the state’s campaign finance system in decades.

Supporters say the ballot question — which also creates a publicly funded voucher system for political contributions — makes much-needed reforms in order to bring more accountability to the system.

But opponents say it will use tax dollars to benefit politicians while the state remains under a court order to put more money toward basic education.

Initiative 1464’s voucher system would give voters three $50 “democracy credits” that they can use in state races every two years. To pay for the statewide system, the measure would repeal the non-resident sales tax exemption for residents of sales-tax-free states such as Oregon and Montana who shop in Washington.

To be eligible to redeem the vouchers, participating political candidates would have to pledge to limit self-financing, as well as the size of donations they accept.

“The reason this is needed now is that big money influence in politics has exploded,” said campaign spokesman Peter McCollum. “Regular people are left out of the process.”

Seattle voters passed a similar citywide measure last year. Voters there agreed to raise taxes by $3 million a year in order to get four $25 vouchers they can sign over to candidates, starting with the 2017 council and city attorney elections.

I-1464 also would impose tougher donor disclosure requirements on political ads and limit the amount of money government contractors and lobbyists can contribute to candidates.

Additionally, it would impose a three-year waiting period before former elected officials and senior staff can lobby their previous employers and colleagues.

Opponents, which include former Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna — now a partner at a law firm in Seattle who has lobbied for various clients since leaving state service — assert the measure will hurt tourism and small businesses who benefit from out-of-state shoppers who use the no-sales-tax perk while shopping in Washington.

“It’s going to make things more political. It’s going to take taxpayer dollars and divert it to politics rather than services,” said Yvette Ollada, a spokeswoman for the “No on Initiative 1464” campaign.

An August survey by an independent pollster found that 43 percent of voters were undecided on the measure, with just 34 percent in support. Twenty-three percent of those surveyed were opposed.

A fiscal impact statement prepared by the Office of Financial Management found that the measure would cost about $171.5 million in its first six years of taking effect, with about $165 million of that new revenue from the repeal of the tax exemption being moved to a new account to pay for the publicly-funded voucher system for campaign contributions.

Voters enacted the state’s underlying public records law by initiative, with the overwhelming passage of Initiative 276 in 1972.

The measure called for disclosure of campaign finances, lobbyist activity, financial affairs of elective officers and candidates, and access to public records. Two decades later, voters passed Initiative 134, which enacted contribution limits and other campaign restrictions.

Among the many changes I-1464 seeks is to impose stricter penalties and update fines that were set with I-276 but were not indexed to inflation and have never been increased. I-1464 increases the maximum fine for violations from $10,000 to $50,000, and updates the underlying law to index the fines for inflation in the future. The measure also makes it illegal to use campaign contributions to pay fines or other penalties.

Integrity Washington, the campaign in support of the measure, has already spent more than $1.8 million, including the $1 million it spent on signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

The No On 1464 campaign so far has raised more than $53,000.

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