Two out of three bills in Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez's Clean Campaigns Act will be seen and voted on by the full Seattle City Council next Monday.
Gonzalez introduced the package of legislation with the aim of curtailing Super PAC spending in elections, and then was provided an excellent example of outsized Super PAC spending during November's city council elections, which were inundated with more than $4 million in Super PAC money. Amazon was responsible for $1.5 million of that cash.
Since its inception, Gonzalez's legislation has been split into three separate bills. Two of them will pass on to the full council after a unanimous vote earlier today by the council's Select Committee on Campaign Finance Reform.
The two measures that were passed out of the committee focus on restricting spending by foreign-influenced corporations and creating stricter disclosure requirements for political ads that occur at any time, not just during election years.
Gonzalez, who chairs the select committee, used the powerful, negative campaign against the council's unanimous 2018 vote for a head tax as an example. Amid that campaign, and a sense of growing public backlash, the council reversed itself on the head tax. But to this day, little is known about how the non-election year campaign against the head tax might have been financed.
In additional to Gonzalez, Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Tammy Morales, Alex Pedersen, Dan Strauss, and Andrew Lewis all voted to put the two campaign finance reform measures before the full council. Kshama Sawant and Debora Juarez were absent from the vote and Teresa Mosqueda is on maternity leave.
The remaining bill limits Super PAC donations, and it has the support of Mayor Jenny Durkan, but it's stuck in limbo for a bit longer.
While it restricts Super PAC contributions to $5,000 per individual, it also creates a new type of PAC called a "Limited Contribution Committee” (LCC), for which the $5,000 contribution limit doesn't apply—provided any donations over $5,000 can be traced to a certain number of donors who each contributed small donations.
According to Stranger writer Lester Black's earlier reporting, "Gonzalez originally wanted LCCs to be able to accept up to $500-per-person and donate unlimited amounts of money between each other." That caused concern. Couldn't LCCs just become an inconvenient, yet exploitable loophole?
Gonzalez then submitted an amendment that would limit LCCs to donating a maximum of $10,000 per year to independent expenditure committees. Under that amendment, LCCs could only accept up to $100 per donor. The amendment was heard during a select committee hearing on Tuesday and it passed with little discussion. (The majority of the committee was made up of fresh council members on only their second day of work.)
After the amendment's passage, Gonzalez shelved the PAC bill for a later date.
The two bills that will be voted on next week, Gonzalez explained, are "pretty straightforward and simple" with "broad support among stakeholders."
"The first council bill, while in theory and principle there's a lot of support for it, there are a lot of unanswered questions," Gonzalez said. "I believe we can benefit from a little bit more time. It's more important to get it right than get it done, and we will get it done, and when we do get it done we will feel very, very strongly about the work product."
Gonzalez is also absolutely anticipating a legal battle with this bill, which could be seen as challenging rulings born out of 2011's Citizen United v. FEC ruling. Lester Black has more on that here. So Gonzalez wants to take the extra time to build a "solid legislative record" and make sure that all the members are "in a position to feel extremely comfortable about the defensibility of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
"Any time we challenge the status quo, and power, and the systems of power, there will be individuals who react negatively to that," Gonzalez said. "We want to be in the best position to respond to that."
This is Gonzalez's last meeting before she goes on maternity leave. Councilmember Lisa Herbold will take over the work on the remaining bill and the overall Clean Campaigns Act in her absence. Herbold signaled to advocacy groups that she will be holding conversations about the Super PAC bill going forward to help get to the bottom of some of the unanswered questions.
Action on the Super PAC bill will likely come in spring.