Donation-cap issue divides Seattle election panel
Seattle Times staff reporter
For six years, the city has been raising campaign-contribution limits based on inflation, and the number of donors has dropped dramatically.
Wayne Barnett, the executive director for the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, has suggested that the city should stop raising the limit, encouraging more donors to give. Last year, a donor could not give more than $700 to a candidate running for city office.
"The trend is troubling, with fewer people participating and buying into the electoral process," he said. City policy encourages small contributions by individual contributors, but campaigns now are raising more money from fewer donors. The inflation increases expire this year, and the City Council must renew or change the rules on campaign-contribution limits.
Wednesday, the Ethics and Elections Commission could not agree whether to recommend renewing the inflation adjustments to contribution limits, and it sent a split decision to the council. Commissioners Robert Mahon, Mel Kang and Lynne Iglitzin voted to keep the inflation increases, and Commissioners Michele Radosevich, Nancy Miller and Tarik Burney opposed it.
Commissioner Mahon said, "The trend is toward people with fame or money being the only people who can run for office because you've got to raise boatloads of money from larger numbers of people." Not allowing the contribution limit to keep pace with inflation will make it harder for candidates who are less wealthy to run, he said.
To calculate new limits, the city multiplied the $600 limit in 2000 by the percentage change in inflation, rounded up to the nearest $50. Contribution limits increased to $650 from $600 between 2001 and 2003, and to $700 in 2007. Before 2000, the limit went up periodically, but it was not tied to inflation.
Barnett said there has been a troubling decline in donor participation since the policy took effect. In 2003, when the contribution limit increased from $600 to $650, 11,687 donors gave to campaigns, and 6,277 of them gave less than $100. Last year, when the contribution limit was raised to $700, the number of donors had fallen 37 percent to 7,412 donors, and those who gave less than $100 decreased 56 percent to 2,742.
In the six years before the inflation adjustments, the average contribution grew 27 percent, from $84 to $107. In the six years after the city started raising the limit based on inflation, the average contribution has almost doubled, to $209.80. The averages exclude donations candidates made to their own campaigns.
While Barnett doesn't believe the shift is a result of the inflation-based limit, he does believe capping the limit could slow or reverse the trend.
The amounts raised in competitive races also has gone up. In the 2007 City Council race between Tim Burgess and David Della, Burgess raised $327,557, setting a record for a council election.
Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or email@example.com
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