Everyday people elect officials and send them to Olympia, yet corporations and wealthy donors capture outsized access to them.

In 2012, the Spokane-based electric power utility Avista donated $92,000 via its main lobbyist, Collins Sprague, to influence state candidate races in Washington. That year, lobbied by Sprague, the Washington legislature passed an amendment to the state’s Clean Energy Initiative that loosened definitions of clean energy to include energy produced from older biomass plants, such as Avista’s 1983-vintage Kettle Falls biomass facility.

The Clean Energy Initiative, approved by voters in 2006, was supposed to require utilities such as Avista to grow their portfolios of renewable energy sources, adding, for example, more wind and solar power. But Sprague’s 2012 amendment gave Avista a pass, allowing the company to continue business as usual instead of investing in new renewable resources.

Avista’s lobbying success is just one example of how representative democracy in Cascadia’s most populous jurisdiction has gotten out of balance. Everyday people elect officials and send them to Olympia, yet corporations and wealthy donors capture outsized access to them. This asymmetry in who has legislators’ ears can distort which bills get pushed through the legislature and which get left behind, letting special interests take priority while regular people’s concerns languish.  

Citizens’ Initiative 1464, also known as the Washington Government Accountability Act (WGAA), would restore balance to the state’s democratic process in several ways. In this article, we describe how it would limit contractors’, lobbyists’, and special interests’ privileged access to legislators, ultimately weakening big money’s influence in state politics in three important ways:

  1. I-1464 would make it illegal for politicians to take more than $100 from lobbyists or contractors who stand to gain from legislators’ decisions.
  2. I-1464 would close the revolving door between public office and lucrative lobbying positions, so that public servants can’t sell their government relationships to special interests.
  3. I-1464 would restrict coordination between candidates’ campaigns and independent expenditure groups, which are often backed by special interests.

In this article, we examine how each of these provisions could have impacted legislative decisions and election outcomes in the Evergreen State over the last several election cycles.

1464 reins in pay-to-play…

With new contribution limits…

Lobbyists for Uber and Lyft have so far contributed nearly $40,000 to Washington legislators in the 2014 and 2016 elections. These gifts have coincided closely with the state legislature’s work on a bill governing insurance regulations for Uber and Lyft’s industry (“transportation network  companies,” or TNCs). The bill was signed into state law in 2015 and settled some hot debates in the ridesharing world in favor of these companies. Not surprisingly, more than $1,500 of Uber and Lyft’s lobbyists’ contributions went to the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Cyrus Habib.

In the most recent state-level elections, held in 2014, registered lobbyists, including individuals and firms, collectively gave or transmitted for their clients close to $2.5 million in political contributions to influence the outcomes of candidate elections. I-1464 would stem this tide of funds, eliminating lobbyists’ ability to transmit contributions to candidates on behalf of their employers and limiting their direct contributions to candidates who could have influence over their lobbying interests to just $100 per election. Had I-1464 been in effect in 2014, it would have cut lobbyist-handled contributions from close to $2.5 million to less than $200,000.

…And ramped-up rules for businesses receiving public contracts

Big companies that receive major, often multi-million-dollar, contracts from the State of Washington and local jurisdictions also spend big bucks on campaign contributions. In some cases, these companies support the campaigns of candidates who have some decision-making power over who receives those contracts.

Because even the suggestion of corruption could erode the public’s trust in its government, the Washington Government Accountability Act would curb contractors’ political contributions. I-1464 would block state contractors, their top employees, and close family members of those employees from contributing more than $100 to any candidate that would have a decision-making role regarding their contract once in office. When all contractors’ political giving is limited, citizens can be more confident that contracts are going to the best qualified vendors, not ones that greased the skids.

Many local elected officials, like city council members, mayors, and county commissioners, directly influence contract awarding and management decisions, and this section of I-1464 would likely impact them most. Under the initiative, current and prospective contract vendors in these local jurisdictions would be subject to the $100 contribution limit to the election funds of these public servants.

One example of a contractor that would have been subject to I-1464’s limits is Tucci and Sons, Inc., a small construction firm located in Tacoma, Washington. In 2015 the company won a public works contract from the City of Tacoma, worth nearly three million dollars, for corridor improvements on South Tacoma Way. That year, the company also made a $500 campaign contribution to John Hines, a candidate for Tacoma city council.

In the City of Tacoma, city council members have significant influence over the awarding of public contracts (see sections 7.10-7.13 in the city charter). Therefore, had I-1464 been in place last year, Tucci and Sons would have been limited to just $100 in contributions to city council candidates.

At the state level in Washington, the elected official with the most potential influence over contract decisions is the governor. Subject to approval by the senate, the governor appoints the executive director of the Department of Enterprise Services (DES). DES staff award and oversee public master contracts (contracts that any other state agency or local government can utilize without having to undertake a new bidding process). It is unclear whether or not the governor’s indirect decision-making role with respect to public contracts will fall under the limits imposed by I-1464, but the Public Disclosure Commission would interpret that item, should I-1464 pass.  

If the governor’s indirect role in influencing public contracts does fall under I-1464 limits, Verizon Wireless is one current state contractor that would be subject to this limitation. The company is a vendor on two Washington state master contracts, one for providing government employees with pay-as-you-go wireless minute plans and the other for providing mobile phones to government employees. In the 2015 fiscal year, Verizon received nearly $45 million for services under these two contracts, representing nearly 80 percent of all payments made to mobile phone companies through these contracts. Verizon also made a $1,900 contribution to Jay Inslee’s primary election fund that year.

Does this pattern of contributions and contracts prove anything? No. But it’s the kind of pattern that reinforces public cynicism about government. Were I-1464 currently in effect, campaign contributions from Alaska Airlines, CodeSmart, T-Mobile, and Verizon to candidates for governor would be restricted to $100. We can’t know if this change would have shifted contracts; we do know that it would have eliminated the appearance of corruption.

1464 jams the revolving door between public service and private lobbying

Lobbying and special interest groups routinely offer Washington public servants high-paying lobbying jobs, and politicians and their staff members often move straight from public office to these lucrative private lobbying jobs, where they get paid to influence their former colleagues. Of the 15 top paid individual lobbyists in 2015, at least two-thirds were former elected officials or staff members. Of the nine legislative incumbents who lost in the last two election cycles, two are now registered lobbyists.

Of the 15 top paid individual lobbyists in 2015, at least two-thirds were former elected officials or staff members.

For example, Roman Daniels-Brown served as the Director of Policy for the Washington State House of Representatives for 15 years, concluding his service in 2009. The same year he left that post, he registered as a lobbyist with the State of Washington and was compensated more than $27,000 for private lobbying services.

One client, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, one of the leading manufacturers of generic drugs worldwide, paid Daniels-Brown more than $23,000. His work for Novartis in 2009 primarily concerned Senate Bill 5892, which encouraged the substitution of generic prescriptions for brand-name drugs in state-purchased health care plans. The bill flew through both legislative houses, and Governor Gregoire signed it into law that year. The relationships Daniels-Brown had developed with legislators over the previous 15 years of his career no doubt helped oil the gears for the bill’s swift passage and made Daniels-Brown extremely valuable to Novartis.

The success marked the beginning of a successful lobbying career. In the three years after leaving his public staffing position (2009-2011), Daniels-Brown received a total of  $363,498 for his lobbying services. More recently, in 2015, he was paid more than $522,000 by his clients, making him the fourth-highest-compensated individual lobbyist in the state last year. So far in 2016, Mr. Daniels-Brown is the fourth-highest-paid  individual lobbyist in Washington State.

The revolving door between public servants—both elected officials and their staff—and lucrative lobbying jobs swings freely in Washington State. But not so in many other states: 32 others already have laws requiring some “cooling off” period for former legislators before they can become lobbyists. Most states’ existing laws require that former state employees and their staff wait just one year between leaving office and taking lobbying positions. Washington’s current law is also narrow in its aim, restricting former public servants from taking financial advantage of decisions they made while in office or accepting jobs that appear to be compensation for the work they performed during their time in office, but the law has no express provision against lobbying.

  • I-1464 would strengthen these barriers, requiring former elected officials and their staff to wait three years before receiving compensation for lobbying their former colleagues, or before accepting employment or compensation from a lobbyist who lobbied them while they were in office. These stipulations would make this revolving-door rule one of the tightest on the books anywhere in the United States.  

    1464 restricts campaigns’ coordination with IEs

    Finally, I-1464 will strengthen how Washington defines “coordination” between candidate campaigns and supposedly independent expenditure committees. Independent expenditure (IE) committees spend money to influence electoral races, but they purport to be independent of any candidate and therefore not subject to the contribution limits that govern candidates’ campaigns. In reality voters often perceive IEs to be acting as spending arms of candidates’ campaigns, with very little distance between the two.

    Currently, the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), the government body charged with tracking campaign ethics violations in Washington, takes a generously optimistic approach to political coordination. Coordination must be a proactive occurrence; merely possessing information that should not cross boundaries between candidates and IEs does not currently suffice as evidence that involved parties did share information. In addition, under current law, coordination between campaigns and IE committees is extremely difficult to track, in part because Washington’s existing definitions of coordination are loose, and in part because they cover only a small range of scenarios.

    Initiative 1464 would flip this paradigm to take a more skeptical stance towards coordination, with the base assumption that coordination does occur in cases where information can easily be shared between candidate campaigns and IEs. The burden of proof that coordination did not take place would fall to the parties involved in these circumstances, rather than rest with the overstretched state staffers to investigate case by case.

    The Initiative also strengthens the definition of coordination by describing seven clear criteria or scenarios that the PDC will automatically consider as evidence of coordination between an IE and a candidate’s campaign, unless proven otherwise:

    1. If a candidate or candidate’s agent has previous knowledge of the expenditure;
    2. If the person making the expenditure is an immediate family member or employee of the candidate;
    3. If the expenditure was made in cooperation or consultation with an immediate family member or employee of the candidate;
    4. If the candidate (or his or her agent) and the person making the expenditure both  attended a campaign strategy or planning meeting related to that candidate’s election strategy any time within the previous two years;
    5. If the candidate or agent contributed to a committee making the expenditure or asked others to do so within the previous two years;
    6. If the candidate or agent and the person making the expenditure shared an office in the previous two years; or
    7. If the candidate or agent and the person making the expenditure coordinated with the same third party for campaign-related purposes in the previous two years.

    One example of a situation that may have come under scrutiny under these rules involves Argo Strategies and the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee (SDCC), an official caucus political committee organized and maintained by Democratic party representatives. Argo is a political consulting firm that has served as a vendor for several IEs. In 2012 numerous PACs paid Argo nearly $210,000 to run phone and mailer campaigns supporting many Democratic candidates for state legislature and attacking several of their Republican rivals.

    At the time, Argo also shared office space with the SDCC. In addition, Argo’s founding partner Jason Bennett served as the treasurer for the SDCC. Under current law, the SDCC-Argo arrangement is fine as there is no evidence of active coordination; the parties did their best to keep their activities separate in close quarters. But under I-1464, sharing office space and a staff member would create a legal presumption of coordination: the parties would have to prove they were not coordinating, despite the shared office and staff member.

    Under existing law, the PDC would have to prove that the campaigns and IEs coordinated. Under I-1464, the parties would have to prove they didn’t.

    Cozy relationships are not unique to Olympia’s Democrats. Across the aisle, another example stands out. Since 2008, Brent Ludeman has served as campaign manager and treasurer for both the Senate Republican Campaign Committee (SRCC) and The Leadership Council. The SRCC is an official caucus political committee. As campaign manager and treasurer for the SRCC, Ludeman may have intimate knowledge of many Senate Republican campaigns and therefore would be prohibited from having any input on IEs that could impact these campaigns. The Leadership Council, on the other hand, is a Washington State Republican PAC.

    In his role for The Leadership Council, Ludeman easily could have been involved in making several major contributions to other PACs that made IEs. For example, in 2010, The Leadership Council gave more than $200,000 to a PAC called Working Families for Change, which then ran a direct mail campaign opposing Democratic State Senate candidate Claudia Kaufman. Ludeman may have recused himself from expenditure decisions of The Leadership Council because of his position with the SRCC, or The Leadership Council may have forked over $200,000 to Working Families for Change without any direction regarding its use. Still, under I-1464, the possible transfer of knowledge between the SRCC and The Leadership Council, via Ludeman, would have led to close scrutiny under criteria one above.

    Though neither the Democratic nor the Republican example above describes behavior that was necessarily coordinated between candidates and independent expenditures, they do appear suspicious. Did the parties involved keep secret what they knew? Under existing law, the PDC would have to prove that the campaigns and IEs coordinated. Under I-1464, the parties would have to prove they didn’t.

    A powerful tool against powerful interests

    Lobbyists, contractors, and other special interest groups have outsized influence in Washington’s institutions of government. Right now, lobbyists and contractors can contribute to candidates’ campaigns, increasing the odds that legislators will hear them out about why the legislature should prioritize their policy proposals or alter legislation to fit their views.

    Lobbyists can also offer public servants lucrative lobbying positions, potentially influencing public servants’ judgement on public matters because they are thinking about their next career move. This arrangement also grants special interests unique access to active legislators by hiring their former colleagues to leverage their relationships. Layer on top of this the generously permitted and difficult-to-track ties between IEs and campaigns, and you have a state government that is less accountable to average Washingtonian voters.

    The Washington Government Accountability Act proposes powerful changes to narrow these avenues by which well-financed interests command an outsized share of legislators’ time and attention. In the following articles in this series, we’ll examine the additional ways that I-1464 strengthens oversight capacity for these reforms and expands disclosure rules, and we’ll explain what I-1464 would mean for hopeful candidates and for everyday voters in future Washington elections.