Ever since the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in its disappointing 2010 Citizens United decision, political campaigns have raked in huge piles of cash from super PACS — independent political action committees that bundle donations from companies, individuals and unions.
The court’s reasoning: Corporations have the free-speech right to spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for a candidate or cause of their choice.
Opponents of Citizens United aren’t far off the mark when they say democracy is drowning beneath the open floodgates of this unrestricted spending.
Washington voters will see two measures on Nov. 8 ballot, Initiatives 1464 and 735, that aim to dilute the influence of big money in politics. We advise that they reject the former and support the latter.
If I-1464 were up for a line-item vote, it would be worth considering the parts that target the lack of political transparency and accountability. But the initiative is a complex package with too many flaws.
Its sponsors want to drag political mud-slingers into the light of day by improving disclosure laws. Wouldn’t it be grand if big donors funding vague and vicious attacks could no longer hide behind PAC labels? I-1464 would also hinder PACs from funneling money from international donors attempting to influence our elections.
In a political system awash with “dark money” and tales of corruption, it makes sense to want to cap individual and corporate donations. It also sounds enticing to stop the routine practice of politicians and their senior staffers taking lucrative lobbying jobs as soon as they step out of office. I-1464 mandates a three-year waiting period before former elected officials could solicit their former colleagues.
But the initiative also calls for a publicly funded voucher system, and here’s where I-1464 goes south.
Washington voters would receive three $50 “democracy credit contributions” to spend on state races of their choosing. Vouchers would be redeemed by participating candidates who’ve pledged to limit self-financing and the size of donations they accept.
I-1464 boosters can’t point to other states that do this, but Seattle voters approved a similar voucher system last year that will go into effect in 2017. With credits funded by the city property tax, every registered Seattle voter will get $25 to spend on any race. If city politicians want that cash, they have to do a little extra doorbell wooing to get it.
And that’s the point. In a political system where money buys access, vouchers aim to spread the wealth down to the grassroots.
Enforcement of the new system would fall to the state Public Disclosure Commission, and funding would come from repealing Washington’s nonresident sales tax exemption. That means Alaskans, Canadians, Oregonians and other out-of-state shoppers would have to start paying Washington’s 8.9-percent sales tax, adding an estimated $30 million a year to state coffers.
Closing that loophole, among several others, merits serious consideration. But If anyone should get a crack at the out-of-state tax windfall, it’s state lawmakers acting on behalf of public school children and behavioral health patients.
There is no end of needs confronting the 2017 Legislature; now is not the moment to conduct an experiment in campaign finance reform that uses taxpayer dollars like paper money from a board game.
Initiative 735 is steeped in the same goal of bringing a little decency back to democracy, but its backers are content to take the slow road to reform.
While I-735 amounts to social criticism via the ballot, it’s worthy of a yes vote. Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington’s Democratic congressional delegation agree. Rather than count on a more favorable court to overturn Citizens United, proponents of the initiative want to supersede the ruling via a constitutional amendment.
The initiative calls for our state’s delegation in Washington, D.C., to propose a constitutional amendment that ultimately would take away the corporatized free-speech bullhorn.
If it passes, Washington would be the 18th state to stand up and be counted against the unbridled volume of election spending.
Matthew Streib, spokesman for the Washington Coalition to Amend the Constitution, says it may take five years to gather the support of 30 states and ratchet up the pressure on more members of Congress.
A slow road, indeed.