City council members had some tough questions for their colleague Mike O'Brien, who has proposed legislation that would prohibit incumbents from hanging on to surplus campaign funds and bar all candidates from raising money before January 1 of an election year.  Any extra money would have to be donated to charity, refunded to donors, or deposited in an incumbent's office fund, a catchall account city officials can spend on just about any purpose related to their office.

As we've mentioned, the proposal has a few potential unintended consequences for both challengers and incumbents. It could simply push the fundraising rush forward to January, benefiting incumbents who can more easily raise large donations than challengers. It could  encourage self-funding of campaigns by wealthy candidates, who can give unlimited amounts to their own campaigns (and who can spend as much as they want on their own campaigns before the January 1 start date the legislation would oppose). Or it could encourage activity by independent PACs, which aren't subject to finance limits.

Council members, as well as Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission head Bill Sherman, brought up all those questions and more at this morning's meeting, putting O'Brien---typically cool under pressure---on the defensive.

"Campaign money, in a sense, acts like water," Sherman said. "Wherever it can travel, it will. An attempt to build a dam will not be successful if there’s a route around the dam where the water can travel." Nonetheless, Sherman added, the commission ultimately decided to endorse O'Brien's proposal because its goals are "not audacious" and its outcomes are "measurable."

"This will not radically change the dollar amount donated to campaigns. However, it would create a period, just as in the state legislature, during which the perception of the influence of campaign donations ... would not be possible." (State officials are not allowed to campaign for office while the legislature is in session.)

One argument for the proposed changes is that incumbents are able to start raising money for the next campaign as soon as they're reelected, and can hang on to their surplus funds, giving them an advantage over challengers. Proponents of O'Brien's proposal frequently cite the low dollar amount---just $175---raised by all council challengers before January 1 in the 2011 races, a figure that suggests that banning rollovers and creating a January 1 starting line will even the playing field for everyone. However, in the past, challengers have actually raised quite a bit more before the beginning of election year---a total of $27,000 in 2009 and $65,000 in 2005, for example.

That would seem to suggest, as council member Tom Rasmussen did this morning, that challengers might actually be hurt by a ban on fundraising before January 1.

"If you were to limit challengers to beginning their fundraising at the beginning of election year, they have a really steep hill to climb within a really short period of time," Rasmussen said. "Although, historically, most challengers don’t start much more before the beginning of the year, a wise challenger probably should, and we would, by passing this legislation, be making it impossible for them to do so."

Rasmussen, incidentally, is the incumbent with the highest amount of surplus campaign dollars in his bank account (around $144,000), in part because he---unusually among sitting council members---hasn't had a serious challenger since he defeated incumbent Margaret Pageler in 2003.

Rasmussen also asked, rhetorically, whether it was a good idea to change the city's election law in response to what could be a temporary electoral blip. "I do think it's important to look at ethics and election laws from time to time, but I do think we need to be very thoughtful when we do change them by being aware of what we are trying to achieve," Rasmussen said. "Do we create more bureaucracy or more problems than we're solving?"

Attempting to "scare away the opposition," his colleague Tim Burgess added, is just part of what all candidates---incumbents, challengers, and candidates for open seats---do when running for office. So why punish candidates who do it well?

Rasmussen also raised concerns about language in the proposal referring to "actual or perceived corruption" on the part of city officials. "Are you saying that corruption exists today among city officials, or among the donors to elected officials?" he asked.

"Absolutely not," O'Brien said. However, "I don’t think waiting for actual corruption to happen and then reacting is appropriate.  … Despite our best intentions, the public often has a very negative perception of government and this is an opportunity to say we take that perception very seriously."

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