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New year, new limits on Seattle campaign financing?

caption: Just one of the fliers paid for by independent groups which spent $4.25m in the last Seattle City Council election. Donations to those groups would be limited under a pending Council bill.
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Just one of the fliers paid for by independent groups which spent $4.25m in the last Seattle City Council election. Donations to those groups would be limited under a pending Council bill.
KUOW/Amy Radil

Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González is facing a number of deadlines, but before the clock strikes, she hopes to enact new restrictions on outside spending in city elections.

González said Thursday she’s also amending her legislation to help it better withstand legal challenges.

González’ “Clean Campaigns Act” aims to limit the donations to outside groups that ballooned in Seattle’s recent City Council elections to a record $4.25 million. González said that spending on ads and flyers undermined the city’s publicly funded “democracy voucher” program and threatens public confidence in elections.

Her legislation sets a $5,000 limit on donations to independent expenditure committees from people, corporations and other political actions committees. Those groups can currently raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates' campaigns.

Initially the bill did not apply that donation limit to “grassroots” groups. Those groups are defined as seeking smaller donations from a high volume of donors. It said those groups, which were assumed to include organized labor groups that collect member dues, could still donate any amount.

Members of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission flagged that as a problem that could make Seattle’s law more vulnerable in court.

“We’re treating people differently and that doesn’t feel right to me," said commissioner Eileen Norton said at an October meeting. “I just worry that this sets up a loophole that folks can take advantage of.”

Other commissioners said they feared the loophole could “swallow up” the law entirely.

In response, González said she’ll amend her legislation. Grassroots groups, called “limited contributor committees,” will be able to donate twice as much as other donors, but they’ll still face a cap of $10,000.

“If you’re truly a grassroots organization, meaning that you have a high volume of low-dollar donors, then regulations should be a little different for you,” González said after a City Council briefing Thursday.

“But we still need to recognize that even those entities have the potential to raise a lot of money and tip the scales away from the intent of democracy vouchers in our city.”

The proposal also builds on an existing federal ban on foreign campaign donors to prohibit donations from “foreign-influenced corporations,” defined as a foreign owner having a 1 percent stake in a corporation or multiple owners controlling 5 percent. González said another amendment will also prohibit those corporations from donating to candidates.

She also plans to break the existing proposal into three separate pieces of legislation, to insulate the different sections from legal challenges.

She told the city elections commission, “I do feel strongly we could withstand a legal challenge if one were to come,” and said the city already has pro bono counsel ready to defend it.

González said she’d rather see action on the state or federal level.

“Unfortunately that’s not happening,” she said. “So I think we have an opportunity here to get that conversation going and hopefully be a catalyst for what the federal government or the state government might consider doing in the future.”

González is trying to assure passage of the bill at a time when the City Council committees are being reconfigured to include newly elected members.

Meanwhile González is approaching the due date for her first child and preparing to go on maternity leave in just a few weeks.

She said she’ll seek to introduce the amended legislation when the council next convenes on January 6 and hopes that the council will pass the campaign finance restrictions in her absence the following week.

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