Initiative 134: Is This What We Voted For?

LAST November, Washington voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 134, a complex attempt to put a lid on political campaign spending. So far, the initiative appears to have had some unanticipated results.

Backers of the initiative, including this newspaper, wanted to limit the influence of special interests and to divert the flow of the campaign dollars through the political parties. So far, it hasn't happened.

Campaigners for King County Executive Tim Hill and challenger Gary Locke both fear they will not have the money they need to get their message to voters for the Nov. 2 election. The initiative, in combination with county laws, limits them to $650 per contributor while cutting off the public matching funds that were intended to replace special-interest money. Neither candidate has been able to find enough small donors to make up the difference.

The parties aren't filling the void, either. In county races, they can contribute only $1,000 per candidate. So Locke and Hill are on their own.

Meanwhile, larger contributions are being diverted to so-called "independent" campaigns, where there are no legal limits. Political veterans fear next year's campaigns will be dominated by such independent expenditures, where there is little accountability either to candidates or to the public.

And while the initiative cuts the flow of big money to candidates, the state has been flooded with money from the National Rifle Association, the tobacco lobby, teachers and other public employees, and now billionaire Bill Gates - all on one side or the other of initiatives 593, 601 and 602.

It's much too early to draw firm conclusions about the effects of the campaign-finance initiative. The real test comes next year, when state legislators will be forced to live with it.

But experience so far suggests that attempts to curb the flow of political money often serve only to divert it underground - worth remembering as Congress resumes its effort to clamp down on congressional campaign spending.