The initiative process has garnered its critics over the years, but in 1972, it served us well. That year, in what was also my first presidential election, I was among the 72 percent of voters who approved Initiative 276. It created the Public Disclosure Commission, where I now serve as chair.
This month – March 29, to be exact – marks the 50th anniversary of the filing of that monumental initiative that gave Washington what is still regarded today as some of the nation’s best state campaign-finance disclosure laws.
In the years leading up to I-276, public sentiment had been building for the creation of a system to regulate campaign financing and allow the public to see who was giving contributions and how campaigns were spending them.
Gov. Dan Evans, in a 1971 message to the Legislature, was firm: “If there is a lessening of people’s confidence in the political process, then much of it must come from the hypocrisy and the sham of campaign financing. I have examined many proposals for correction of this evil and have decided that only a full disclosure bill with no exceptions and no minimum amounts would be adequate.”
Lawmakers attempted to engineer reforms, but their efforts fell short of a full disclosure bill in the eyes of activists like those who formed the Coalition for Open Government (COG). The group included the League of Women Voters, American Association of University Women, Young Lawyers of Seattle-King Co., Municipal League of Seattle-King Co., Seattle Press Club, Washington Environmental Council, Washington Council of Churches, Common Cause, and Seattle’s CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council).
During 1972’s legislative session, lawmakers passed two bills, one dealing with the regulation of lobbyists and the other with campaign finance. Legislators and advocates argued over whether candidates should be required to submit a signed document agreeing to a formal code of fair campaign practices and whether revealing the identity of contributors was an invasion of privacy.
After a House version of one of the bills was amended by the Senate, Rep. Arthur C. Brown (R-1st District) said the amendments created a series of loopholes that would keep secret contributions of special interests and offer the public little information until after the election. He called the amended bill “a sham and a delusion, apparently meant to fool the public.”
Lawmakers opted to send a pair of referenda on their two pieces of legislation to voters. Referendum 24 and Referendum 25 appeared on the November ballot, allowing voters to either approve or reject the two bills.
But COG reformers argued that the separate bills lacked the kind of teeth they sought. Instead, they filed Initiative 276, a sweeping effort to regulate campaigns and lobbyists – and repeal the legislation already passed.
By May 1972, COG had gathered only about 30,000 of the estimated 125,000 signatures needed to place I-276 on the ballot. Determined supporters pressed on, gathering more than 162,000 signatures – enough to qualify for the November ballot.
On Nov. 7, 1972, voters approved the initiative and made it the law. It required disclosure of sources of campaign contributions along with reports of how the money was spent. It mandated reporting of personal financial interests by candidates, elected officials, and certain appointees. It also regulated lobbying and required reporting of the money lobbyists spend to influence legislation.
The initiative laid out 11 statements of policy, including this: “Our representative form of government is founded on a belief that those entrusted with the offices of government have nothing to fear from full public disclosure of their financial and business holdings, provided those officials deal honestly and fairly with the people.”
The law (now codified as RCW 42.17A) has been going strong ever since. Along the way, voters resoundingly approved another measure, I-134, to add contribution limits on the influence of money in politics.
Commissioners are appointed by the governor for five-year terms, confirmed by the Senate. Of the five commissioners no more than three can be from the same party. We currently have three Democrats, a Republican, and an independent (retired superior court judge). Beyond that, there are no specific qualifications. I’m the only non-lawyer on the commission right now; one practices law in Spokane, one is a King County deputy prosecutor, and one a retired legislative staffer.
For a while, the Legislature played games with the PDC by underfunding it, but credit Anne Levinson who, during her stint as a commissioner and chair of the commission, went to the Legislature for improvements. Levinson was able to get several reforms in the RCW that limited the ability of folks to leapfrog the PDC by going to court, and she stabilized the funding for staffing required to investigate and adjudicate complaints. She established the “transparency fund,” which collects all the fines we levy and funds improved technology.
As a consequence, we now spend less time in court, investigate and close cases much faster (we had virtually all the complaints in the last election cycle done during the campaigns), establish an on-going audit function post campaign-cycle, and vastly improved the applications folks have to use to report. For example, I just finished my financial disclosure form for 2021. It took me less than 20 minutes thanks to the “Turbo-Tax” approach to filing.
I’ve watched these disclosure practices play out as a local elected official, a member of the Legislature, and now as a commissioner. All the while, I’ve been subject to that law myself, filing campaign finance reports and annual financial disclosures over the past 40 years.
I can confidently say Washingtonians are better for having access to that information about the people (and the people behind the people) who govern or seek to govern.