After opposition from the Freedom Foundation, the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) has reworked a troubling provision of draft legislation it intends to submit to state lawmakers during the 2022 legislative session in Olympia.
As the entity charged with administering and enforcing Washington state’s campaign finance laws, the PDC has in recent years brought forth several pieces of “agency request” legislation that have ultimately been passed into law, and it intends to do so again next year.
However, among other things, the nearly 70-page initial draft of the proposal would have discouraged organizations from conducting efforts to inform the public about policy matters in an attempt to get them to ask their state legislators to support or oppose particular legislation.
Known as “grass roots lobbying,” such campaigns are a common feature of the legislative process and help keep the public apprised of significant issues under consideration by lawmakers.
As initially drafted, the PDC’s proposal would have required the sponsor of any grass roots lobbying advertisement costing more than $1,000 to include on/in the advertisement itself the names of the sponsor’s top five aggregate contributors over the preceding 12 months.
In comments to the PDC, the Freedom Foundation explained how the proposal wouldn’t provide meaningful information to voters, but would discourage organizations from engaging in political speech in violation of the First Amendment.
Thanks to the Freedom Foundation’s involvement, the PDC subsequently modified its draft legislative proposal to no longer require sponsors of grass roots lobbying campaigns to disclose their top donors.
Under the latest draft, entities sponsoring a grass roots lobbying campaign would have to register the campaign with the PDC and disclose persons contributing over $25 specifically to the grass roots lobbying effort, as is currently required. It would also add a new requirement that any grass roots lobbying communication costing $1,000 or more identify the top five contributors to the grass roots lobbying campaign of more than $1,000.
However, the organization sponsoring the grass roots lobbying campaign need not disclose its contributors to the PDC so long as they didn’t give specifically to support the grass roots lobbying campaign.
In his briefing for the commissioners, the PDC’s general counsel confirmed this interpretation of the draft and credited the Freedom Foundation’s comments for the change.
While this is welcome news for free speech advocates, legislation was introduced on the last day of the 2021 session that would require sponsors of grass roots lobbying campaigns to disclose their donors, so the issue may well resurface in 2022.
The Freedom Foundation will continue to monitor and push back against attempts to use campaign finance rules to undermine people’s right to come together in support of charitable organizations without fear of reprisal or publication on a government website.