City council member Mike O'Brien's proposal to reform city elections by limiting the transfer of "rollover" funds to $5,000 and prohibiting candidates from raising funds until January of their election year is by no means a done deal.

As I reported yesterday, some of the potential unintended consequences of the proposal include the fact that challengers would be limited to a very brief (11-month, as opposed to four-year) period to raise funds; the January deadline could lead to a mad sprint to raise funds on January 1, benefiting incumbents; and candidates would have an incentive to spend all their money before an election cycle ends, to avoid having to give it up.

In addition to scrutiny from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission next week (O'Brien, along with his colleagues Sally Clark and Tim Burgess, have asked the commission to take a look at the proposal and make suggestions), O'Brien's council colleagues have not yet signed off on the proposal. (The letter is just a request to the commission, not an endorsement of the legislation).

For example, Richard Conlin, in an email to his colleagues and a comment on my recent post on O'Brien's proposal, said,
[T]he limitation on the fundraising period will discourage candidates who focus on large numbers of small contributions and encourage relying on large contributions that can be obtained quickly in the short period between January and the filing deadline.  It will also likely give an inappropriate advantage to candidates who can provide significant funding for a campaign out of their own financial resources.  Allowing fundraising up to six months after election in combination with th¡ose limitations will encourage those lobbying to invest in candidates who have already won, and create more cynicism in the public.  In short, this change favors the rich and empowers those who can give substantial contributions, and I will likely vote against it.

Conlin's colleagues Clark and Burgess were more open to the proposal, but both had major questions about its potential for unintended consequences, as well as what problem it is meant to solve.

"I don't know yet" whether he supports the legislation, Burgess said today. "Other than Mike O'Brien, no one is saying they are going to advocate for a specific policy." As for the argument behind restricting the window in which candidates can raise funds, Burgess says, it's "primarily an anti-corruption argument---to stop the flow of campaign contributions when campaigns are not ripe."

(The argument, in short, is that allowing contributions throughout an incumbent's term can create the impression of a quid pro quo---a company gives a candidate money and expects him or her to vote their way.) "I don't know if I agree or disagree with that argument or that rationale," Burgess said.

Burgess pointed out that challengers typically raise very little money before January---since 2000, challengers' pre-January haul has been just 23 percent of incumbents' take. Last year, no challengers raised any money before January.

However, Clark pointed out that by prohibiting contributions before January of an election year, challengers (and incumbents) no longer have the option of getting early money. "In the past couple of cycles, we might not have seen somebody successfully fundraising in the previous 18 months, but you're definitely making an intentional decision not to allow that," Clark said.

Additionally, Clark points to the Ed Murray problem---that is, if a state official (say, state Sen. Murray, D-43) wanted to run for a city office (say, mayor), they would be restricted not only by the January limit, but by the state prohibition on raising funds during the legislative session---which, as it happens, starts in January. That would put state officials at a distinct disadvantage raising money for a city race.

And Clark wondered what, exactly, the proposal is meant to accomplish. (Particularly if, as Burgess contends, it has little impact for most city candidates because city candidates don't tend to raise much money before January anyway.)

"One of the things that Mike and I struggled with a little bit is I was asking him, can you define the problem statement that we're trying to address? There are lots of different problems with campaign finance, but I'm still struggling to figure out what the problem statement is."

And there are outstanding questions. For example, although council staffers' memo about the proposal stipulates that 2013 candidates would be able to keep any funds that are in their current accounts, it isn't clear whether candidates for future races, including the five incumbents who are up in 2015, would be able to do so as well, or whether they'd have to get rid of their surplus accounts. It's also unclear whether a 2013 council candidate like Burgess or Bruce Harrell would be able to transfer his surplus funds into a campaign for a completely different office, like mayor (both men are widely rumored to be considering a run against Mayor Mike McGinn.)

Finally, it's possible that the legislation might have additional unintended consequences, such as promoting companies to do independent expenditures on behalf of candidates (as opposed to contributions). Unlike contributions, O'Brien's proposal does not address IEs.
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