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Monday, November 1, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Is Washington ready to clean up its elections?

Syndicated Columnist

The election will be over tomorrow — at least the voting, if not the litigating.

But before we forget — or more likely, block out — Campaign 2004's half-truths and distortions, let's consider the states of Maine and Arizona. Citizens in those two states have stood up against the wink-and-nod game of political payola that often finances campaigns such as the ones that have been stinking up our living rooms, drowning our mailboxes and littering our porches.

In 1996 in Maine and 1998 in Arizona, voters approved "clean election" initiatives that set up a system of public financing for campaigns.

Sounds radical, sure. But desperate circumstances call for desperate measures.

In Washington elections this year, the manipulations of special-interest money have been particularly brazen — from both sides of the political spectrum. Remember the Service Employees International Union's $275,000 ads attacking state Rep. Helen Sommers? Don't forget the shameless machinations of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce trying to avoid disclosing its $1.5 million firebomb directed at an attorney general candidate in the primary.

Both were outrages. But the most outrageous aspects of any campaign season is what comes after: the perennial expectations of special-interest contributors who helped candidates get elected, and the temptations of otherwise upstanding lawmakers making decisions with an eye to their rating with organizations ranging from conservation voters to the conservative union.

"When people say they're not closely tied, they're not telling the truth," said state Sen. Jim Kastama, who in 2003 introduced legislation proposing publicly financed campaigns. The Puyallup Democrat is working with Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, on companion bills they'll introduce in the next legislative session.

The League of Women Voters of Washington is supportive of the idea, and Washington Public Campaigns (www.washclean.org) is also pressing the idea.

The beauty of a clean-elections system is that it completely changes the rules. The long reach of business, unions and other lobbies into caucuses and into individual lawmakers' consciences are severed. The lawmakers are beholden not to the PACS or lobbyists, but exclusively to the voters who elected them and financed their campaigns.

"It frees good people from a bad system," said Doug Clopp of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

In Maine, the results have been dramatic. Maine passed a law permitting the state to use its size to negotiate lower drug prices for citizens — something the big pharmaceutical companies might have been able to stop if lawmakers were leashed by a need for campaign cash.

In Arizona, nine of 11 statewide officials elected in 2002 were clean campaigners, including the governor and attorney general. This year, 75 percent of all candidates running for Maine state office have signed up for public financing, and the incumbent governor plans to run clean when he's up for election in 2006.

In both states, candidates qualify for public campaign money by raising a certain number of $5 contributions from individuals to demonstrate they are not fringe candidates. The candidate agrees to state-established base spending limits (less for a legislative race, more for statewide office) and not to accept any more private money.

Candidates can choose not to use public campaign money and opt to raise money the old way, dialing for dollars from big business, unions and other special-interest groups with no limits. However, if a clean-campaign candidate faces a privately financed candidate, the clean candidate can qualify for additional money up to a limit — a total of three times the base limit, in both Maine and Arizona.

Also, third-party expenditures, like the SEIU's targeting of Sommers in this state, would trigger additional financing.

Public financing of campaigns cost money, to be sure. In Maine, $2 million a year comes out of the general fund by statute; in Arizona, people pay a surcharge on fines and can get a tax credit for donations on their state income tax bill.

In Arizona's 2002 election, the clean-campaign system cost about $2.50 per resident; in Maine, $1.50 per resident.

Pennies a serving, I'd say, especially when you consider the investment not only in clean campaigning but purer policy discussions driven by what's right, not by cash allowances from lobbyists.

In the last days of this season, we've heard from several candidates stinging over a last-minute mailer distorting an incumbent's vote or a challenger's position.

Some are resigned that this is how the game is played. But we can do better.

We can change the rules.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com. Look for more of her thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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