Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission:
Its mission, services, and data files
“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.”
This quotation from the policy provisions of the Open Government Act, better known as the Public Disclosure Law, aptly summarizes both the impetus for and the purpose of the statute.
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.
Following an unsuccessful attempt in 1971 to generate legislative action and only minimal success in 1972, these concerned citizens – calling themselves the Coalition for Open Government (COG) – turned to the people. COG gathered nearly 163,000 signatures in record-breaking time in order to place Initiative 276 on the November 1972 General Election ballot. Initiative 276 became law on January 1, 1973 after being approved by 72% of the voters.
In 1992, reform-minded voters again passed a comprehensive campaign finance ballot measure – Initiative 134 – that imposed sweeping changes on the manner in which campaigns are conducted in Washington State. Over 72% of the voters again supported reform. This time around, however, it was contribution limits and other campaign restrictions that the voters approved
The Public Disclosure Law contains five main areas of jurisdiction:
- campaign finance disclosure
- contribution limits
- personal financial affairs of candidates, elected officials, and high level appointments in state government,
- political advertising, and
- lobbyist reporting.
Together they constitute one of the most exhaustive disclosure laws in the country.
For the last three years Washington’s disclosure program has ranked first in the nation by the Campaign Disclosure Project (a research study undertaken by the UCLA School of Law, the Center for Governmental Studies and the California Voter Project supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts).
Personal Financial Affairs
Anyone holding or seeking a state or countywide elected office, or holding a high-level state appointed position, is required to file a statement disclosing their personal financial affairs. Most local elected officials and candidates must also disclose personal financial information.
The information reported includes sources of income and gifts, real estate holdings, investments, creditors, businesses owned, and the major customers of those businesses.
Candidates running for a state or county-wide office as well as candidates for local offices in jurisdictions having 5,000 or more registered voters must register and report their campaign transactions. Candidates running for office in smaller local jurisdictions who expect to receive contributions totaling more than
$5,000 also file disclosure reports.
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 who raise or spend more than $5,000 must file frequent reports showing the names, addresses, occupations and employers of their contributors, the total amount donated and how the funds were spent.
Most contributors – including individuals, PACs, unions and businesses – may not give a state-wide executive office candidate more than $1,600 per election or a legislative candidate more than $800 per election. These contribution limits were imposed when voters approved Initiative 134 in 1992 and the PDC adjusts these limits for inflation every other year.
Starting in 2006, all judicial candidates and port commissioner candidate in a port district with more than 200,000 registered voters were subject to the $1,600 per election limit. An $800 per election limit was imposed on contributions given to candidates running for a county office in a county with more than 200,000 registered voters. In 2010, the Legislature extended the $800 limit to all county office candidates as well as all mayor and city council candidates.
During the three weeks before the general election, most donors may not give more than $5,000 to a political committee or any local candidate not otherwise subject to limits.
The political advertising provisions of the law apply throughout the state, regardless of the number of voters in a jurisdiction.
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 clearly identify themselves as the sponsor of the advertisement. If these ads are undertaken independently of a campaign, additional information regarding the sponsor must be published or broadcast as part of the ad.
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 always must identify the candidate’s party preference.
Anyone 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 is required to register as a lobbyist.
Once registered, a lobbyist files detailed monthly reports disclosing their employer(s), the amount of compensation, the identities of those entertained, provided gifts, and contributed to including the dollar amounts involved. Lobbyist employers file a similar report annually.
The Public Disclosure Law relies both on the antiseptic qualities of “sunshine” and several prohibitions to assure the citizens of Washington that candidates, public officials, and government in general operates openly and honestly.
Washington’s public disclosure law allows citizens an in-depth look at who is financing a campaign or who has hired legislative lobbyists before deciding which candidates, ballot proposals or pending legislation deserve their support.
The Public Disclosure Commission and its staff work to ensure compliance by those subject to the law. Persons subject to the law usually find themselves being monitored by concerned citizens, special interest groups, and the news media as well.
Detailed reports filed by candidates, political parties, lobbyists and contributors are accessible at the Public Disclosure Commission’s website: https://www.pdc.wa.gov/
Public Disclosure Commission:
Campaign expenditures, advertising requirements
Defining independent expenditures and electioneering communications:
Political advertising that contains all of 1-5 OR A-D below, must comply with the disclosure requirements subsequently explained.
- the ad supports or opposes a candidate for state, local, or judicial office;
- the ad is paid for by someone other than a candidate, a candidate’s committee or agent;
- the sponsor does the advertising completely independently of any candidate supported in the ad (or the opponent of the candidate opposed), or a candidate’s committee or agent;
- the sponsor did not receive the candidate’s encourage-ment or approval to do the ad; and
- the ad costs at least $950, or the cost of this ad when combined with the cost of earlier ads supporting or opposing the candidate, totals $950 or more.
- clearly identifies at least one candidate for state, local, or judicial office;
- appears within 60 days of an election in the candidate’s jurisdiction;
- is produced through radio, TV, postal mailing, bill-board, newspaper, or periodical; and
- either alone, or in combination with other communications by the sponsor identifying the candidate, has a fair market value of $1,000 or more.
Political Advertising Includes . . .
. . . advertising displays, newspaper ads, billboards, signs, brochures, articles, tabloids, flyers, letters, radio or TV presentations, or other means of mass communication, used for the purpose of appealing, directly or indirectly, for votes or for financial or other support or opposition in an election campaign.
“Mass communication” is a message intended to reach a large audience through any of the methods described above as well as periodicals, sample ballots, web sites, e-mails, text mes-sages, social media, and other online or electronic formats enabling the ex-change of communication. Sending 100 or more identical or substantially similar letters, e-mails, or text messages to specific recipients within a 30-day period is an example of mass communication.
The statement “No candidate authorized this ad. It is paid for by (name, address, city state)” must be a part of the ad. A political committee, except for a bona fide party committee, must also include:
“Top Five Contributors” followed by a list of the names of the five contributors who made the largest contributions in excess of $700 to the committee during the 12 months before the ad appears. AND
The full name of the individual or entity that established or directly maintains or controls the sponsoring committee (or indirectly maintains or controls the sponsoring committee through the formation of one or more political committees).
No candidate authorized this ad. It is paid for by The Committee for Good Government (Gotham City Merchants Assn.) Top 5 Contributors . . .
Always include the party preference of a candidate running for partisan office.
Written ads & websites:
Size & Placement: Party preference and sponsor requirements must: appear on the first page of the communication in at least 10 point type, or for billboards or posters, appear in type at least 10% of the largest size type used in the ad, and be set apart from any other ad text. Do not screen or half-tone the text.
Exception—small online ads with limited characters may display the required elements in an automatic display such as a mouse tip/rollover or nonblockable pop-up that remains visible for at least 4 seconds OR on a webpage that is conspicuously linked to the small ad and reached by one click of the mouse.
Yard signs no bigger than 8’ x 4’, clothing such as T-shirts, and bumper stickers no bigger that 4”x15” are exempt from the sponsor requirements. The PDC’s Political Advertising Guide has a more complete list of exempt items.
Broadcast ads, videos. telephone and online audio ads—Candidate party preference and required disclosures must be clearly spoken. An abbreviation may be used when naming a Top 5 contributor, provided the full name of the contributor has already been clearly spoken in the ad.
ALTERNATE OPTION FOR TV AND OTHER MEDIUMS WITH A VISUAL IMAGE—The “paid for by” statement and political committee disclosures may appear in print, so long as they are visible for at least 4 seconds, appear in letters greater than 4% of the visual screen height, and have a reasonable color contrast with the background.
Exception—Bona fide political party committees are required to include the “no candidate authorized this ad . . .” statement in broadcast ads, but not the Top 5 contributors or controlling entity.
Refer to the PDC’s Political Advertising Guide for false political advertising and other prohibitions: http://www.pdc.wa.gov/
Public Disclosure Commission:
Surplus campaign funds linked to candidates
What are surplus funds?
Any monetary contribution that was received for an election, not spent on the election, still in possession and control after the election is held of the candidate, and not needed to pay campaign debt from the election.
What can be done with surplus funds?
- Refund the contribution(s), but not in excess of what was received from that source;
- Reimburse candidate for earnings lost as a result of his/her campaign activities. Lost earnings must be verifiable as unpaid salary, or if not salaried, the amount reimbursed should not exceed income received for services rendered during an appropriate, corresponding time period;
- Transfer the surplus without limit to a political party or to a caucus political committee;
- Make a charitable donation;
- Give it to the state treasurer for the state’s general fund, the oral history, state library, and archives account, or the legislative international trade account;
- Spend it on non-reimbursed public office-related expenses if elected. Candidate must register a surplus funds account with the Public Disclosure Commission and file surplus funds account expenditure reports for this option; and/or
- Candidate may leave the surplus funds in the campaign account for possible use in a future election campaign for the same office for which the contributions were received.
Can surplus funds be given to another candidate? No.
Must a candidate open a separate bank account for surplus funds?
Only if the candidate is spending surplus funds on non-reimbursed public-office related expenses. A surplus funds bank account is a perpetual account – each time candidate runs for office and surplus funds remain, the funds may be deposited into the surplus funds bank account regardless of which office candidate sought. (e.g., Surplus funds from a city council campaign can be deposited into an account that contains surplus funds from a state legislative campaign.) Only surplus funds can be deposited into the surplus funds bank account.
Must candidates report how surplus funds are spent? Yes.
If a candidate does not open a surplus funds bank account because he/she is not going to make non-reimbursed-office related expenditures, the candidate must continue to file monthly campaign reports after the election showing expenditures. At the end of each month, if candidate has not spent $200 since the last report was filed, candidate may file a report for multiple months when that amount is reached.
If a candidate plans to make non-reimbursed office-related expenditures, he/she must open a surplus funds bank account, file a Candidate Registration (PDC Form C-1) for the account, and file monthly surplus funds account C-4 reports showing expenditures and at the end of each month, If the candidate has not spent $200 since the last surplus funds account C-4 report was filed, he/she may file a report for multiple months once that figure is reached.
Candidates’, current elected officers’, lobbyists’ and political committees’ financial reports are available at the PDC website: https://www.pdc.wa.gov/MvcQuerySystem
Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission is unique among state agencies: It was created by a vote of the people rather that legislative edict or constitutional directive. It’s mission and information bank remain close to those who formed it: our state’s voters. Following is a summary detailing those who set commission policy and the staff that implements those policies. Further, a summary of the services the PDC provides the public reinforces its commitment to its mission. Contact information is included below.
Initiative 276 created a five-member, bipartisan 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 the commissioners, including prohibitions against:
- holding or campaigning for elective office;
- being an officer of any political party or political committee;
- supporting or opposing any candidate or ballot proposition;
- participating in any way in any election campaign inside or outside of
Washington State; or
- lobbying, employing or assisting a lobbyist, except on PDC 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 a portion of the law. And, in their most visible role, they judge enforcement cases brought before them for hearing and possible imposition of a penalty.
Commissioners are not full-time state employees. They meet, usually in Olympia, on the fourth Thursday of every month, except during November and December, when meetings are scheduled for the third Thursday. The public is invited and encouraged to attend these meetings. Time is always reserved for public comment.
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 annual budget is about $2.4 million.
Annually, some 6,600 public officials, 2,800 candidates, 800 political committees, 900 lobbyists, and 1,050 lobbyist employers file over 85,000 reports with the PDC. These reports are available on the Internet within hours of when they are received. More than 100,000 people visit the PDC’s website each year.
The PDC is budgeted for 20 full-time employees. The staff’s main responsibilities are to receive, organize, record, copy, examine, and file 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 operations 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.
Legal services are typically provided by the Office of the Attorney General and the Commission’s in-house counsel.
The PDC has no regional offices, but county election administrators distribute PDC materials to candidates and all materials are available at the commission’s website.
The Public Disclosure Commission was not designed simply to serve as a repository for data. Its founding principle is that information about the financing of campaigns and lobbying, and the financial affairs of public officials and candidates be readily available to the public. Most information disclosed to the PDC is available on the agency’s website, www.pdc.wa.gov.
A variety of other data showing the amount of money spent to influence the political process is also available on-line.
Anyone interested in learning more about public disclosure in Washington can access the law and administrative rules at the same website. Manuals, forms, and brochures are also available on-line and PDC staff provide these materials to anyone without Internet access. A small fee is charged for copies of the law and administrative rules.
The PDC staff also accepts speaking engagements.
Computers are available in the PDC’s Olympia office lobby to allow the public access to data about federal, state, or local candidates and political committees. The public may contact the PDC staff and receive the information they are seeking over the telephone. For a nominal charge, the PDC staff will make copies of reports filed with the agency. Some information is available in electronic format.
Public Disclosure Commission contact detail:
Phone: (360) 753-1111
1-877-601-2828 toll free in WA State
Fax: (360) 753-1112
711 Capitol Way #208
P.O. Box 40908
Olympia, WA 98504-0908