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Spokane Council Approves Campaign Finance Ordinance

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Last week we talked with Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart about his proposed Spokane Fair Elections program. This week, his plan went to the city council. On Monday evening, Stuckart said the proposal attempts to improve a local system in which more money is being spent in candidate races, yet fewer people are voting.  

“Let me emphasize that this is all within the bounds of state and federal law," Stuckart read from a statement. "I believe (the U.S. Supreme Court case) Citizens United has damaged this country beyond repair.""But it is the law of the land and thus we are limited in our ability to really tackle the biggest issue plaguing our local elections, independent expenditures,” he said.

Here a few of the major points in the proposal written by Stuckart and Councilman Breean Beggs. The maximum contribution limits would be halved, from $1,000 to $500. They define when candidates can raise money. Council candidates running in 2019 are not allowed to accept donations until January 1, 2018. And certain entities, such as public sector unions and companies that contract with the city, may face bans or limitations on contributions. Companies with more than $50,000 dollars in city contracts over a two-year period are forbidden from giving money to candidates.

“Contractors are still allowed to participate in local elections through the independent expenditure process. City contractors have contributed close to $90,000 dollars directly to city elected officials while receiving $116 million in city contributions. I’ve never seen quid pro quo corruption in any of these contracts, but the perception of corruption exists,” Stuckart said.

As for labor unions, he says, for legal reasons, the city can’t prohibit union contributions, but it can make them transparent.

“This ordinance requires that the amount of money spent by city of Spokane bargaining units in support or against current elected officials be disclosed right there on their bargaining unit contract for all of their members to see,” Stuckart said.

On Monday evening, public testimony was more con than pro, including a little holiday poetic license by Spokane County Republican Party Chairwoman Stephanie Cates.

“’Twas the week before Christmas and all through Spokane, city council overreaches, just because they can. Visions of legislative balance no more will be dancing, if this council messes with campaign financing. It means private contractors can’t influence elections, but it gives public sector unions special protections. Incumbents enjoy a stacked deck, early fundraising in their favor, while challengers start behind without such a waiver. As the climate keeps changing, there’s a chill in the air, ‘cause soon our elections will be anything but fair,” Cates said.

One of her main arguments — and that of others who testified — is that the ordinance treats labor unions and private contractors differently. Just as Stuckart argues about the perception of corruption, Cates argues there is a perception that this gives labor unions an unfair advantage.

"If you truly want to ensure an even playing field, I would implore you to hold unions to the same standard as private contractors and keep the individual donation limit where it is now," she said. "I also think it’s critical for council members (Lori) Kinnear and (Karen) Stratton to recuse themselves from this vote. (Both have announced their re-election campaigns.) The ordinance changes the rules for their challengers while allowing them to continue their early lead on fundraising.”

One contractor weighed in. Grant Keller said he didn’t like the implicit message within the proposal.

“I get pretty frustrated and angry hearing some sort of insinuation that I as a contractor or other contractors in this community are going to come write one of you a check to try and get a project like that going or win favor with the city of Spokane," Keller said. "That’s a pretty unfortunate statement.”

Arthur Whitten from the Spokane Home Builders Association took up the equal treatment for unions and contractors argument. Instead of banning contractors from giving, require disclosure of donations in the same manner as unions. Whitten says he also worries the ordinance will add another piece of city bureaucracy.

“The citizens of Spokane have been told throughout the process and the drafting of this ordinance that, first, this ordinance would cost the city nothing, that it would be repurposing of city staff from the unseating Sick and Safe Leave," Whitten said. "Then the citizens were told this would cost about $25,000 for the hiring of a clerk. And then it was also told, well, we’re shifting funds for education, business education and training, implementation. And I’m concerned, and our association is concerned, that there hasn’t been accurate estimation of what this will cost taxpayers.”

Finally, Councilman Mike Fagan credited Stuckart and Beggs for their hard work in researching and crafting their proposal. But he said this issue should be legislated at the state level so that everyone in Washington is following the same rules.

“I personally would feel as though my first amendment speech rights are being restricted, just by the simple fact that we are going to be calling for campaign contribution limits that are going to be 50% of what the state allows at this point," Fagan said.  "I appreciate the work. I recognize the work. It’s a Herculean effort and I wish that I could share the same feelings that you have in the success that you anticipate.”

Two speakers supported the ordinance. One was Pam Behring, the president of the Spokane chapter of the League of Women Voters. She believes the changes are needed to reverse an erosion of trust in the election process.

“It’s a step toward restoring that confidence. We have to believe that we are heard. That our five-dollar, 10-dollar, 50-dollar contributions are important and therefore, as League, we encourage you to support this,” she said.

Before casting his vote, Councilman Breean Beggs acknowledged the ordinance is not a perfect solution to an imperfect campaign system. Some of what people want isn’t legally allowed.

“The current Supreme Court, by a narrow one-vote majority, has ruled out several things," Beggs said.  "Some people wish overall expenditures could be limited. That can’t be done. Some people wish different restrictions on organizations and entities that can’t be done. Those of us that were talking about this ordinance, we wanted to put a restriction on the few public unions that we deal with at the city on contributions, on open contracts. That was in the first draft. We wanted to do that.”

But city attorneys warned against it.

The council approved the measure by a six-to-one vote, Councilman Fagan against. Sometime in the next five business days, it will be sent to the mayor. He has 10 days to sign all of it, part of it or veto it. If he doesn’t sign it in that period, and yet doesn’t veto it, it become law. If he vetoes it, the council will have 30 days to determine how to proceed. It needs five votes to override a veto.


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