Urban Politics #94: Vote On Increasing Contribution Limits

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • Vote On Increasing Contribution Limits
  • Public Hearing On Increasing Contribution
  • Sound Transit Audit Poll Results
  • Forum On Sound Transit Cost Projections

Vote On Increasing Contribution Limits

On Friday, September 22, the Legislative Department and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee of the City Council voted 3-2 in favor of a $600 donation limit. (Pageler, Drago & Conlin vs Steinbrueck & Licata).

The proposal would raise contribution limits for candidates for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney by 50%, from $400 per four-year election cycle to $600 per cycle. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission recommended increasing the donation limit to $800 in its Majority Report, by a 3-2 vote, with two members absent.

The SEEC Minority report did not support an increase in the donation limit to $800. They argued that there is little comparability between City elections and County and State elections. The increase would diminish the value of smaller dollar contributors and they did not believe candidates will need to spend less time fundraising if the limit is increased.

Overall, I agree with the Minority Report. I think raising the donation limit to $600 or $800 will result in candidates focusing more time on large donors; thus, the importance of smaller donors will diminish. I fear increasing the donation limit would not level the playing field. Only those donors who already donate $400 are likely to be able to give more, if the limit is doubled.

While there may be a bias toward incumbents in raising the donation limit, overall, it favors candidates able to secure maximum donations from a large number of donors.

I believe the current $400 limit should be maintained, because it is important to minimize the cost of running for public office to keep the system as accessible as possible. The cost of elections in the City has increased in recent years. I believe keeping costs down is the best way to deal with this; an increase in donation limits will only make campaigns more expensive, and less accessible.

Because the State and the Federal Governments place limitations on City policies, the only vehicle available to limit spending in City elections is donation limits. Seattle used to have a system of public financing (see section cut-and-pasted below), but can’t because of the passage of initiative 134 in 1992, which prohibits the use of public funds for state or local elections.

Similarly, the City cannot require expenditure limits. The US Supreme Court has ruled that limits cannot be imposed on candidates without giving them something in return. Thus, the City lost both the ability to offer partial public financing of campaigns and the authority to impose expenditure limits

There are two significant trends over the last five years which reveal that City Council campaigns are becoming more expensive and there is a greater reliance to fund them from a smaller base of large contributors. I believe that this is a dangerous trend that can undermine our democratic principles of trying to represent the interests of everyone equally. Money does not buy votes, but it does help open doors and only so many constituents can walk in through those doors.

In the last City Council election, for the first time, the total amount of contributions raised and expenditures made by City Council campaigns reached one million dollars. In 1995, the total amount of City Council campaign contributions raised was $718,444 and expenditures were $753,896. In 1997, $838,816 was raised and $860,406 was spent; and in 1999, $1,110,780 was raised and $1,112,164 was spent.

In the City Council races there is an increasing reliance on large contributions as a source of campaign funding. The average contribution size jumped significantly this year, from $88 in 1995 and $94 in 1997 to over $107 in 1999, an increase of 14% from 1997, far in excess of inflation. At the same time, the number of contributors decreased. In 1995 there were 10,183 contributors to City Council candidates. The number of contributors dropped to 9,382 in 1997 and to 9,069 in 1999.

Thus, while the cost for City Council races is increasing, the average size of contributions is rising, and the number of contributors is decreasing. This points to a trend toward relying on big donors, and away from a large number of smaller donors.

Public Hearing On Increasing Contributions

Committee Chair Margaret Pageler, has scheduled a City Council public hearing on donation limits on Thursday afternoon, October 5, from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. The hearing will be in the City Council Chambers, on the 11th floor of the Municipal Building at 600 4th Avenue, between Cherry and James.

A final vote could take place the following Monday, October 9.

Sound Transit Audit Poll Results

Urban Politics has polled its readers from time to time. Most notably subscribers opinions about Seattle’s effort to submit a bid for the 2000 Olympics helped highlight the need to have a public discussion about its impact on Seattle.

73% of the 512 Urban Politics respondents favored auditing Sound Transit.

Two questions were asked:

1. Did you vote for the SoundTransit Proposal in 1996?

2. Do you support the proposed independent audit of SoundTransit’s light rail plan even if it delays building a light rail system for more than a year?

The results of this non-scientific poll (see below) show that an overwhelming number of those voting in favor of SoundMove in 1996 support the recent call from a group of more than 100 elected officials and prominent community leaders for an independent audit of SoundTransit’s Link light-rail project. This poll comes on the heels of the SoundTransit Citizen Oversight Panel’s mid-year 2000 Performance Report that states, “It is now becoming clear that SoundTransit is experiencing both cost overruns and scope creep.”

We must learn from the past. The City Council was rightfully criticized for not asking who was going to pay for hosting the WTO conference if things went wrong. But it’s not too late for us to ask who is going to pay for SoundTransit if things don’t go as planned. We spent millions more than we expected for WTO. This region could easily spend hundreds of millions more than originally budgeted for SoundTransit. If we sign a $500 million binding agreement with the Federal Government that is a promise to complete the proposed Link light rail line, regardless of cost or alternatives.

Like the vast majority of the people who answered the survey, I am a SoundTransit supporter. I do not wish to derail SoundTransit but instead want to make sure that we deal with the already apparent cracks in our foundation*.before we build the house.

Poll Results – total of 512 responses
73% favored auditing Sound Transit
24% did not favor auditing Sound Transit
3% were undecided on an audit
74% of those who voted for Sound Transit in 1966 favored an audit

Forum On Sound Transit Cost Projections

Councilmember Maggi Fimia, Chair of the Metropolitan King County Regional Transit Committee, Councilmember Rob McKenna, Chair of the Metropolitan King County Budget Committee and I are sponsoring a FORUM on Sound Transit’s Costs, Ridership and Construction.

Members of the public are invited to attend. It will be held on Wednesday, October 4, from 5 to 7 PM in the Snoqualmie Room in the King County Courthouse, 4th Floor. Moderated public Q & A from 7 to 9 PM of expert panelists and neighborhood representatives from the general public and media.

Four Speakers on Sound Transit’s Cost and Ridership Projections

Tom Rubin, CPA worked on the LA Metro system – rail versus buses

Kriss Sjoblom, Economist at Washington Research Council — Projected costs overruns

James MacIsaac, Transportation Planner — Projected ridership

Hugh Cronin, Civil Engineer Estimator — Tunnel construction issues

Sound Transit (ST) representative(s) — Response to above speakers

Two Speakers on Alternatives to Light Rail:

Paul Gianelia, Engineer at SCI Construction building a monorail in Vancouver BC — Monorail systems

Chuck Collins, former Director of Metro — Bus system alternative

Rob McKenna, King County Councilmember
Maggi Fimia, King County Councilmember
Kent Pullen, King County Council Member
Jack Barry, Mayor, City of Sammamish
Phil Dyer, Councilmember, City of Sammamish
Don Gerend, Councilmember, City of Sammamish
Kevin Grossman, Councilmember, City of Shoreline
Kathy Huckabay, Councilmember, City of Sammamish
Nick Licata, Councilmember, City of Seattle
Guy Spencer, Councilmember, City of Normandy Park
Peter Steinbrueck, Councilmember, City of Seattle
Booth Gardner, Former Governor of Washington
Norwood Brooks, Former King County Assessor
Jerome M. Johnson, Superior Court Judge (retired)

Keep in touch…


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