Raising money and signing bills shouldn’t mix
PETER CALLAGHAN; THE NEWS TRIBUNE
It was mostly a symbolic gesture within 1992’s campaign finance Initiative 134.
But as symbolic gestures go, it was a pretty effective one.
Legislators and other elected officials couldn’t solicit or receive campaign contributions during legislative sessions or during the month before and the month after sessions.
It was called the legislative freeze period and it was designed to end the practice of lawmakers asking for – or special interests offering – campaign money while bills and budgets were still in play.
The money may or may not have influenced which bills passed and failed. And there remains plenty of time during the rest of the year for it to flow. But the practice looked so ugly that initiative writers included it in the ballot measure that limited how campaign money was raised. Almost 73 percent of state voters approved I-134.
The freeze period was made less effective in 1997 when the state Supreme Court – at the request of the Senate Republican caucus – ruled that while it was illegal for individual legislators or statewide elected officials like the governor to ask for money during session, political organizations such as party caucuses could ask for it.
It was a bad decision. Getting hit on to give to caucuses while bills are pending is more of a shakedown than giving to individuals. Caucus leaders are the men and women who really decide what passes and what doesn’t.
It got worse. When legislators decided to move the state primary from mid-September to mid-August, they ended the 30-day post-session freeze. They needed more time to raise money with the earlier primary, sponsors said. But at least they wouldn’t be asking for money while they were still voting. The day after session, perhaps, but not during.
Legislators, however, were so intent on their own needs, they brought back something from the old days. House and Senate members couldn’t solicit donations while they were still voting, but the governor – who has 20 days to sign or veto bills once the Legislature adjourns – can now raise money while she’s still deciding.
“That’s her vote,” said former state Sen. Dave Schmidt, the Mill Creek Republican who worked for several years to move the primary up. He said leaving the governor free to raise money during the bill-signing time was an oversight.
“It never crossed my mind,” he said. “We were focused on how it affected us. But that’s a pretty powerful position for her to be in.” He thinks the next Legislature should fix it.
The unintended consequence of ending the post-session freeze for everyone but the governor was raised by Luke Esser, the chairman of the state Republican Party. He used it to take a political shot at Gov. Chris Gregoire, who will benefit from several fund-raising appeals that were sent out while she was still considering bills.
But taking political advantage doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a point.
“It creates a horrible appearance and an ethical problem for the people she solicited,” Esser said. That is, interests with bills on the governor’s desk have to decide whether they can afford to ignore the request – in one case for a $500-a-plate dinner.
Paul Berendt, a former state Democratic Party chairman who now works for the consulting firm founded by Ron Dotzauer, said he sent the invitation to people he knew and that the governor wasn’t aware of who was invited and who was coming.
“I didn’t even realize they were still signing bills,” Berendt said. And Gregoire’s press secretary Holly Armstrong said the governor was too busy with bill-signings to pay attention to the fundraisers.
But she said that if lawmakers want to change the law to cover the 20-day bill-signing period, Gregoire likely would go along with that.
Until then, the governor could simply refrain. Just because what used to be illegal is suddenly legal doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657