Keep the bright line between ‘legislative’ and ‘campaign’

Feb 28, 2019

Senate Bill 5270 reminds me of the George Santayana quote about how people who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. The bill, before the Rules committee, would crack open a campaign-funding door that has been closed since 1992, after a scandal that shook the Legislature to its ethical core.

For that reason and others, SB 5270 absolutely should not advance.

Last year our Secretary of State asked for legislation to move Washington’s August primary to June and the May candidate-filing period to March. The bill stalled without a committee vote. This year the chair of the Senate committee on elections came up with a bill that would go farther, moving the primary to May and the filing period to February. But unlike its 2018 counterpart, SB 5270 also would loosen political fundraising limits.

In 1992, when I won my first legislative election, the voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 134. This followed a highly publicized investigation into the illegal use of state resources for campaign purposes, which implicated staff members in all four legislative caucuses. The Public Disclosure Commission fined each caucus $100,000, and staff members received fines ranging from $1,000 to $2,500.

I-134 didn’t completely drain the swamp. But it’s why legislators have to observe a fund-raising “freeze” while in session, so they can’t collect a campaign check at an off-campus lunch in recognition of a vote they took that morning. And why their taxpayer-funded communications are suspended while they are campaigning for re-election, so state-funded mailers don’t happen to show up in mailboxes just before ballots do.

The limits on campaign contributions, prohibition on public funding of state and local campaigns, and restrictions on certain campaign activities maintain a bright line between what’s considered “legislative” versus “campaigning.” The constraints may seem ridiculous to newer legislators in these hyper-political times, but there are still a few of us who understand the reasoning – and the value of avoiding a relapse.

The February filing period called for in SB 5270 would create a conflict between the legislative session and the fundraising freeze. The prime sponsor’s answer is to selectively relax the freeze in the event of a special legislative session.

That’s not acceptable. Imagine that the bill became law this year, then the 2020 session goes into overtime by even a day (it’s possible, as the 2007, 2010 and 2011 sessions ran long despite one-party control). Rank-and-file members of interest groups could line up that day, checks in hand, at an off-campus gathering.

Beyond that, would legislators who file for re-election have to suspend their official communications to constituents with weeks still to go in a session, to avoid being accused of using their office resources to aid their own campaign? And many lawmakers schedule town hall meetings every March. If filing moves to February, are those still seen as legislative functions – or as campaign stops?

SB 5270’s prime sponsor, is one of two Democrat senators tied to an ethics complaint I’ve filed in connection with last weekend’s use of Capitol facilities by (to quote from their website) “the state’s premier organization that recruits, trains and provides a powerful network to Democratic women who want to run for office.”

If the current ethics rules are so easily ignored, you can bet someone would exploit any openings created by SB 5270. The Senate shouldn’t enable that.