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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Camden: Money spoils race competition

By Jim Camden
Published: September 21, 2022, 6:01am

Although Spokane was once the home to some of the hottest, closest and most expensive legislative races in the state, the 2022 races are fairly tame so far and will likely stay that way through the Nov. 8 election.

That’s partly a result of districts being redrawn over the past few decades to make partisan competition difficult. But it’s also a function of a campaign financing system that gives incumbents a sometimes insurmountable advantage. The money invested in candidates — some might say thrown at them — illustrates problems with Washington’s campaign financing system.

First, it comes largely from businesses, political action committees, unions and tribes, $1,000 at a time, which is the state limit for legislators for an election. But because there are two elections each year — a primary and a general — some incumbents collect $2,000 from those groups, even if they have no opposition in either.

Second, regardless of their party affiliation, incumbents get big bucks from many of the same “usual suspects,” including Avista, Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, Pfizer and Anheuser-Busch. Those companies employ some of the best lobbyists in the state, so they obviously know these candidates aren’t in danger of losing. So they are either rewarding them for support in the previous session or guaranteeing access in the next session. Or both.

Third, candidates who have lots of money but little or no opposition aren’t required to spend it on their campaign, and most don’t. They pay bookkeepers to keep track of their money, rent and utilities for an office. Most spread money around to various partisan political action committees, which in turn reinvest it in other candidates.

They also transfer large amounts of cash to so-called “surplus accounts” that could be used in a future campaign.

But with districts so predictably Democratic or Republican, it’s increasingly unlikely an incumbent will use up the money collected and need to tap those surplus funds. Those accounts become little more than slush funds with relatively few restrictions, providing money for certain things they might want to do or places they want to go after they win or after they retire.

After siphoning off money to the slush fund, however, candidates still collect new money for the current campaign.

There’s no way to change district boundaries for the next 10 years, so if Washington voters want competitive races, they’ll have to do something about campaign financing. Here are a few ideas:

  • Allow challengers to raise money as soon as they announce, but don’t allow contributions to incumbents until filing week is over. If a candidate is running unopposed, lower the contribution limit in the primary, with no second contribution for the general election. If an incumbent’s party has won the seat for the past 10 years and they draw an opponent from another party, cut the maximum in half, to $500, before the primary.
  • If a candidate collects more than 60 percent of the vote in the primary, cut the contribution limit in half, and raise the limit for the second-place finisher by 50 percent for the general election. If the challenger is closer than 20 percentage points in the primary, the $1,000 limit should apply to both candidates for the general.
  • If a candidate transfers money to their surplus account, bar them from collecting new contributions for a campaign. That would likely mean that they’d wait until after the election to transfer the money out, so a rule should bar them from raising any money for the next election until they’ve moved all surplus money into the next campaign’s fund and spent it.
  • If they decide not to run for another election, an excise tax should take half of the money in the surplus account and put it in the state General Fund.

This won’t solve all the problems with the state’s campaign financing system or make every race competitive. But they could start the conversation. Maybe it’s time to stop treating campaign financing like the weather, something that everybody complains about but nobody does anything about.