One of the main goals of House Bill 2938, which was signed into law earlier this year, was to streamline the process followed by the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) when dealing with campaign-finance complaints.
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“The legislature intends to simplify the political reporting and enforcement process without sacrificing transparency and the public’s right to know who funds political campaigns,” The bill reads. “The legislature also intends to expedite the public disclosure commission’s enforcement procedures so that remedial campaign finance violations can be dealt with administratively.”
Peter Lavallee, Executive Director of the PDC, presented an update on the bill’s implementation at the Washington State Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee’s interim assembly meeting.
“I appreciate all the attention this committee and the Senate and House, generally, have given the commission,” Lavallee said. “The new tools you provided us, the new funding. Things are going very well.”
Among other tools, HB 2938 gave the PDC new ways to resolve complaints. For example, the PDC can dismiss some cases after initial review or issue warning letters rather than go through the full adjudication process. The bill also created the Public Disclosure Transparency Account, in which fines and attorney’s fees collect and are subject to appropriation by the legislature. The PDC can then approach the legislature and propose ways to use the funds (for hiring new staff, for example).
In his presentation, Lavallee highlighted the PDC’s progress so far in fiscal year 2019 in comparison to fiscal year 2018. In FY2018, fewer than half as many complaints were closed as were opened. This fiscal year, the commission is only 20 complaints behind.
Lavallee credited that progress to a roughly 40-percent increase in the number of staff working on addressing the complaints, and to “constantly improving internal processes.”
In a follow-up phone call, PDC Communications & Outreach Director Kim Bradford said that the 40-percent increase in staff was made possible by a combination of funding. Some was provided by HB 2938, which included $125,000 in funding per year for FY2018 and FY2019, and some funding came from outside of the bill.
While results look positive so far, Lavallee also pointed out there’s still plenty of time left in FY2019 for things to change.
“I think the effect [HB] 2938 will have is yet to be determined,” Lavallee said.
The bill’s implementation thus far has not been without its obstacles. Lavallee said the PDC is putting forth an agency-request bill that would address issues the commission’s faced, like a loophole in the language surrounding independent expenditures and ballot measures.
“Independent expenditures were defined in terms of campaign contribution limits,” Lavallee said. “There are no contribution limits for ballot measures. So they were inadvertently defined out of independent expenditures. So we’re fixing that loophole.”
The PDC is now in the permanent rulemaking process, which Lavallee said will include — among other things — responding to emerging media markets and new technologies that are leveraged for political advertising.
Lavallee closed with an image of one of the PDC’s first-ever reports, which showcases just how much campaign financing has changed since Washington voters approved the PDC’s formation in the early 70s.
“On that first report, the total expenditures for all Senate campaigns were outspent by the special election in the 45th Senate election recently,” Lavallee said.
In the election he was referring to, two candidates’ combined expenditures topped $3 million.