December 22, 2022

Commissioners discussed inflationary adjustments to campaign finance reporting thresholds and limits.

The law requires the Commission to periodically look at dollar values that determine contribution limits or establish when campaigns must report certain activities.

The Commission reviewed a preliminary chart showing the effect of inflation since the last time each limit or threshold was enacted by the Legislature.

The Commission is not required to make adjustments, although it was noted that contribution limits deserve particular attention in view of court rulings urging governments to avoid unduly restricting contributors’ free speech rights. The last time contribution limits were adjusted was in 2016.

Although the preliminary chart lists exact values adjusted for inflation, the Commission can round off values for ease of understanding by the public.

The Commission plans to hold a public hearing on the proposed adjustments at its meeting on Jan. 26.

Declaratory order sought

Jay Petterson of Blue Wave Political Partners submitted a petition for a declaratory order on whether the fundraising freeze that starts prior to the legislative session applies to state employees who decide to run for office.

The freeze begins 30 days before the start of the regular session and continues through the session and through the adjournment of any special session. It prohibits legislators, elected state officials and people employed by them or acting on their behalf from soliciting or accepting campaign contributions during the freeze.

The question is whether the freeze applies to state agency employees who decide to run for office themselves and want to solicit contributions for their own campaign, rather than for that of a legislator or elected state official.

The Commission could decide to issue a declaratory order or some other alternative to clarify the matter. Commissioners voted to take up the matter at their Jan. 26 meeting.

Campaign audit report

PDC’s staff reported on the audit program for calendar years 2021-2022. They included 31 limited scope candidate audits that involved:

  • Eight 2018 state Senate candidates from four contested general election races
  • Eight 2020 state House candidates from four contested general election races
  • Fifteen 2019 candidates for local county and city offices

The audits are meant to provide the public and filers with information about compliance, with an eye toward improving instructions and guidance for filers.

The eight 2018 candidates disclosed receiving more than 10,000 separate monetary and in-kind contributions totaling $3.4 million. They reported $3.3 million in expenditures. The 2020 candidates disclosed receiving more than 7,000 separate monetary and in-kind contributions totaling $2.27 million. They reported $2.2 million in expenditures. The 2019 candidates disclosed receiving 3,177 contributions, totaling $647,765. They reported $620,000 in expenditures.

PDC staff found widespread compliance with filing deadlines and reporting requirements. Most of the late-filed reports came from local candidates, who are less likely to hire a professional treasurer for their campaign.

Staff recommendations based on the audits included advertising PDC guidance and training opportunities to candidates, conducting outreach to vendors, candidates and treasurers to improve reporting on political advertising expenditures, and improving guidance to candidates on what needs to be included in campaign books of account.

Enforcement hearings

Kurt Shawn Merz, board member for the Wahkiakum School District, failed to file a Personal Financial Affairs (F-1) report for calendar year 2021 on time. He filed that report prior to the hearing, along with a missing report for 2019. He had already paid a $250 penalty for the 2019 report violation. He had also missed filing on time for the 2020 calendar year, but that violation was resolved through a Statement of Understanding and payment of a $100 penalty.

He told PDC staff that he experienced slow rural internet speeds and needed PDC help to file the missing reports.

The Commission voted to impose a $500 penalty for the most recent violation.

The Commission also heard two requests for reconsideration of previously imposed fines, both from short-term employees of the state House of Representatives who failed to file F-1 reports for calendar year 2021 on time. Both did file after receiving a letter from PDC staff explaining their filing obligation.

Both employees said they were unaware of their obligation to file an F-1 and did not receive emailed reminders from the PDC because they had both left state employment and no longer had access to their state email addresses.

In both cases, the Commission voted to vacate the penalties.

Enforcement stats

As of Nov. 29, there were 68 active complaint-based cases, and four PDC staff-initiated cases. (Three were cases heard by the Commission at this meeting.)

During the period Oct. 17 through Nov. 29, the PDC closed 56 complaint-based cases and 22 staff-initiated cases.

A total of 39 cases were closed with formal written warnings to the respondents; most of those were candidates filing late reports or using inaccurate descriptions of expenditure activities. One case involved a first-time 2022 candidate who received a written warning for failure to include sponsor identification and party preference on a YouTube video ad.

In another case, the state Republican Party received a reminder to be cautious about using an organization’s logo without permission, following a complaint about a campaign mailer. PDC staff found that the mailer did not constitute an implied endorsement by the organization featured in the mailer.

Meeting dates for 2023

Thursday Jan.  26

Thursday, Feb. 23

Thursday, March 23

Thursday, April 27

Thursday, May 25

Thursday, June 22

Thursday, July 27

Thursday, Aug. 24

Thursday, Sept. 28

Thursday, Oct. 26

Thursday, Dec. 7 (Nov./Dec. meeting)

Next Commission meeting: Jan. 26