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Public Disclosure In Washington State

"The public's right to know of the financing of political campaigns and lobbying and the financial affairs of elected officials and candidates far outweighs any right that these matters remain secret and private." [RCW 42.17A.001(10)]

The above quotation is from the policy provisions of the Open Government Act, better known as the Public Disclosure Law, which aptly summarizes both the impetus for and the purpose of the statute.

Breaking Ground

The origin of Washington's disclosure law can be traced to the efforts of concerned citizens who came together in 1970 believing that the public had the right to know about the financing of political activity in this state.

In 1971, following an unsuccessful attempt to generate legislative action and with minimal success in 1972, those concerned citizens who now call themselves the Coalition for Open Government (COG), turned to the people.

In order to place Initiative 276 on the November 1972 ballot COG gathered nearly 163,000 signatures in record-breaking time. 72 percent of voters approved Init 276 which then became law January 1, 1973.

In 1992, to address contribution limits and other campaign restrictions reform-minded voters passed a comprehensive campaign in Washington State where over 72% of the voters supported reform.

The Act

The Public Disclosure Law relies on the antiseptic qualities of "sunshine" and several prohibitions to assure citizens of Washington that governmental systems and individuals who operate within it are open and honest. Before deciding which candidate, ballot proposal or pending legislation deserve support, the law provides citizens with an in-depth look at who is financing a campaign or has hired legislative lobbyists.  In addition, monitoring efforts of concerned citizens, special interest groups, media and Public Disclosure Commision assures compliance with the law. Although the Act does not apply to candidates running for federal office a Federal Election Law governs these individuals.  Furthermore, at the state level disclosure law covers all candidates, elected officials, lobbyists and lobbyist employers. Persons holding or seeking local office are subject to only portions of the law. The statute contains five main elements. Together they constitute one of the most exhaustive disclosure laws in the country and serve to build public confidence in the political process and government.

  1. Personal Financial Affairs: Anyone holding or seeking a state elected office, or holding a high-level state appointed position, is required to file a statement of financial affairs. Local officials and candidates in jurisdictions having 1,000 or more registered voters also must file the report.
    The information reported includes sources of income and gifts, real estate holdings, investments, creditors, businesses owned and the major customers of those businesses.

  2. Campaign Finance:Candidates running for state office must comply with the rules governing campaign registration and reporting. Candidates for local office who expect to:

    • receive contributions totaling $5,000 or more or
    • who seek office in jurisdictions having 5,000 or more registered voters, or
    • covering an entire county, must also register and report campaignfunding.

    In addition, the campaign disclosure provisions apply to political parties and other political committees, including clubs, neighborhood groups, and others who raise and spend funds to influence candidate elections and ballot propositions. Candidates and political committees raising and spending less than $5,000 have minimal reporting. Those raising or spending over $5,000 must file frequent reports showing the names, addresses, occupations and employers of their contributors, the total amount each has donated and how the funds were spent. Most contributors - including individuals, PACs, unions and businesses - may not give a statewide executive office candidate more than $1,600 per election or a Legislative candidate more than $800 per election. During the three weeks before the general election, most donors may not give more than $5,000 to any local or judicial candidate or political committee.

    • Lobbying: Persons receiving compensation or making expenditures for the purpose of attempting to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation or rule by the state legislature or a state agency are required to register as lobbyists. Once registered, they must file detailed monthly reports showing the names of their employers, the amount of compensation, the identities of those entertained, provided gifts and contributed to and the amounts involved. Lobbyist employers file a similar report annually.

    • Political Advertising: Anyone, including individuals, corporations, unions and other organizations, paying for ads that solicit votes, funds or other support for state or local candidates, ballot measures, or political committees usually must, as part of the ad, clearly identify themselves as the sponsor. Additional information is necessary if these ads are undertaken independently of a campaign.

    Some advertising items are exempt from this ID requirement (e.g., yard signs, bumper stickers, campaign buttons, etc.). However, all radio and TV ads and the vast majority of written ads - including newspaper ads, flyers, brochures and the like - must comply with the ID requirement.

    Political ads relating to candidates for partisan office must always identify the candidate's party preference.

    The political advertising provisions of the law apply throughout the state regardless of the number of voters in a jurisdiction.

    • Public Records: The law requires that most of the records held by state and local agencies be made available for public inspection free-of-charge and for copying at a reasonable charge.

    The statute recognizes that some information entrusted to agencies is of such a nature that disclosure would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. In these cases, non-disclosure is permitted if the record is specifically exempted in law from disclosure.

    PDC has no role in the administration and enforcement of the public records provisions. Persons denied the opportunity to inspect or copy public records may file suit in superior court or contact the Office of the Attorney General for more information.

  3. The Commission

    Initiative 276 created a five-member, bi-partisan citizen commission to ensure that the provisions of the disclosure law are fully met. Commission members are appointed by the Governor for one five-year term and are confirmed by the state senate.

    Recognizing that the members would be serving in highly visible and sensitive positions, the drafters of the initiative put additional constraints on commissioners. No member may:

    > hold or campaign for elected office;
    > be an officer of any political party or political committee;
    > support or oppose any candidate or ballot proposition;
    > participate in any way in any election campaign inside or outside of WA state; or
    > lobby, employ or assist a lobbyist, except on Commission matters.

    The commission members wear many hats. They are the "board of directors" of the agency. They set over-all policy, adopt administrative rules and interpret the law. The members hear and decide reporting modifications requested by those who believe they should be exempted from portions of the law. And, in their most visible role, they judge enforcement cases brought before them for hearing and possible imposition of penalty.

    Commissioners are not full-time state employees. They meet, usually in Olympia, on the fourth Tuesday of each month, except during November and December, when meetings are scheduled for the third Tuesday. The public is invited and encouraged to attend these meetings. Time is always reserved for public comment.


  4. The Agency & Staff

    The Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) is one of the few state agencies created directly by a vote of the people. This fact is not lost on those who serve on the Commission or hold an agency staff position. Providing quality public service is the agency's primary reason for being and its first priority.

    The agency's budget is $2.1 million per year. Annually, some 6,600 public officials, 2,000 candidates, 800 political committees, 900 lobbyists and 1,000 lobbyist employers file over 90,000 reports with PDC. Reported data is also accessible through PDC's website. PDC is budgeted for 23 full-time employees. Legal services are typically provided by the Office of the Attorney General.

    The staff's main responsibilities are to receive, organize, record, examine, and process the reports supplied by those subject to the law. In addition, staff members provide information and training, monitor compliance, conduct investigations and develop computer programs for easy public access to information.

    The executive director is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the agency. The director is also the Commission's primary spokesperson and liaison with the legislature, other governmental agencies, and the citizens of the state.

    PDC has no regional offices, but county auditors distribute PDC materials and maintain campaign disclosure report files regarding candidates and committees in their areas. (In King County, this service is provided by the Records, Elections and Licensing Services Division.)


  5. Public Services
    The Public Disclosure Commission was not designed simply to serve as a repository for data. The whole idea is that information about financing of campaigns and lobbying and financial affairs of officials and candidates be readily available.

    Many callers receive the information they are seeking over the telephone. For a nominal charge, others are sent copies of actual reports on paper, diskette or CD ROM. Still others receive copies of computer generated data. On-line computer access to detailed campaign finance information regarding state executive and legislative candidates has been available since July, 1992. A variety of other data showing the amount of money spent to influence the political process is also available online (http://www.pdc.wa.gov/).

    Numerous people seeking information visit PDC's offices. They use the public access computers to obtain data about federal, state or local candidates or political committees, view and copy files, or consult with staff about the law or their problem or concern.

    Anyone interested in learning more about public disclosure in Washington can receive reprints of the law and administrative rules for a small fee, and also obtain copies of forms, instruction manuals, and brochures at no cost. PDC willingly accepts speaking engagements. 


  6. Statutory Authority

    The Public Disclosure Commission is created pursuant to RCW 42.17A.100. The Commission's powers and duties are set forth in RCW Sections 42.17A.050, 42.17A.105, 42.17A.110, 42.17A.120, 42.17A.125, 42.17A.755, and other provisions of RCW Chapter 42.17A.