More bipartisan interest in targeting ‘dark money’

Bellingham Herald

By Jordan Schrader

A growing coalition of state senators wants to target campaign spenders that don’t report where their money comes from.

Spokane Sen. Andy Billig tried unsuccessfully last year, and the Democrat did win some support from Republicans, including Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn. This year, though, the effort has extra momentum because of a campaign ploy targeting a member of the Republican-led coalition.

A group calling itself American Values First spent more than $40,000 mailing fliers that, on their face, praised Sen. Tim Sheldon for votes such as allowing college financial aid for immigrants brought to the country illegally. Although the Democratic Party-tied group insisted it really did support Sheldon, it appeared to target the mailing to conservatives bound to be upset at the votes.

Sheldon, a Democrat who defected to form a mostly Republican coalition, and the GOP argued the group was breaking the law by failing to disclose its donors.

A complaint is still in the early stages of investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission, but Washington campaign law requires such disclosure by groups whose “primary purpose” is influencing elections. American Values First, registered as a nonprofit “social welfare organization,” said it didn’t fall under those requirements.

Registering as a social-welfare nonprofit has become a popular way for groups to avoid disclosure since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the door for more campaign spending. Groups tied to Republican strategist Karl Rove and the conservative industrialist Koch brothers have been among the most active in federal elections.

But when those groups spend large amounts of money on Washington state elections, Billig’s Senate Bill 5153 would require them to disclose their big donors.

The bill would consider them “incidental committees” and if they spent more than $25,000 on a statewide campaign or $5,000 on any other campaign, they would have to disclose donors of $2,000 or more.

“It’s clear that we need to act to combat the rise of dark money in politics,” Billig said in a statement this week announcing the measure.

Several Republicans, including Sen. Joe Fain of Auburn, signed on to the bill. The list of supporters also includes Sheldon.