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Originally published Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Lobbyists, political committees should fund transparency efforts

Proposed fees for lobbyists and political committees would ensure the public has enough information to better understand how money influences their government.

Seattle Times Editorial

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DO you know who is plying your legislators with fine dining and campaign contributions to get their vote? Do you know what good causes are active in Olympia?

Well, you should. State lawmakers should take a close look at proposed legislation that would make the political process more transparent.

House Bill 1005 would charge lobbyists and political committees an annual fee to ensure citizens are kept abreast of who is trying to influence their lawmaker. It would also merge existing ethics boards with the Public Disclosure Commission, as well as expand the agency’s electronic filing process and help it create a searchable database that tracks lobbying activities.

That’s no small task. In 2012, total lobbying expenses in Washington reached $51.8 million. But to see how they used that money to entertain lawmakers and which interests they protected, citizens have to find and read through scanned reports that are often filled out in handwriting.

In contrast, candidates’ campaign-finance reports on the commission’s website are both easy to query and revealing.

Lobbyists have long been required to register with the commission, but their activities are far less obvious to the public.

To pay for the creation of a lobbying database, HB 1005 would require political committees to pay a $200 fee every year to the Public Disclosure Commission. Lawmakers and lobbyists who earn $10,000 or more would pay the same fee, as would companies that pay $10,000 or more to persuade legislators. Government agencies with more than 50 full-time employees would pay $150 annually.

More transparency is necessary because Washington places no limits on individual contributions to state parties or political action committees.

Campaign-finance statutes also have been subject to manipulation.

In a notorious 2010 primary scheme, Moxie Media, a liberal consulting firm, created “conservative” political committees to oust a moderate Democratic senator from Everett. Getting slapped with $290,000 in fines didn’t stop Moxie Media from celebrating a banner 2012 election season.

The top 50 lobbyists in Washington state earned between $96,119 and $471,670 this year. These political players can afford a nominal fee.

Voters are entitled to know how money influences politics. HB 1005 should be headed for a serious debate.

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