Once an election is over, those who contribute to political campaigns might not think twice about exactly where their money went.
Most would assume it went toward getting their candidate elected. But what if there is campaign money left over?
Well, the laws governing how those surplus dollars can be spent in our state are a little vague.
Campaign finance rules allow elected officials to use what’s left in their campaign coffers for their next run at office, or they can donate the money to political parties or charities. That’s all well and good.
But they also can use it for unreimbursed expenses related to their work for the public. It’s this category that seems to be a problem.
Apparently there are varying interpretations of the types of expenses that fall under that broad umbrella.
The Northwest News Network and The Seattle Times recently delved into state records to see how elected officials used their surplus campaign funds. The analysis found lawmakers spent some of their money on clothing, food and furniture — which could be considered technically legal, but might not set well with donors.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is one whose expenses raised eyebrows. Ericksen is already under fire for his dual role as a state senator here and a job with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. His constituents don’t believe they are getting full representation from Ericksen while he also works for the Trump administration.
The analysis showed Ericksen spent more than $2,000 on his first day with the EPA at a Washington, D.C. hotel. The stay coincided with President Trump’s inauguration. He was also very busy on Dec. 12 of last year, spending money at restaurants in Washington, D.C., Vancouver and Portland all in one day.
But Ericksen is not the only one to use the money for things that don’t quite fit our picture of how excess campaign funds should be handled.
Two others spent as much as $10,000 redecorating their offices. A senator from Monroe used surplus campaign dollars for new suits, dry cleaning and alterations and to have new soles put on his shoes. Most of us are required to wear appropriate attire shoes to work, but few of us are reimbursed for our wardrobe and footwear.
These are just a few examples that make us want to see the rules refined.
For its part, the state Public Disclosure Commission, which governs such matters, says all the expenses reviewed could indeed be legitimate. Using funds for travel related to work as an elected official would be acceptable. Using the same funds for travel related to another job would not. Most senators who were questioned didn’t fully explain how the expenses were related to their work in public office. This “allowable” type of spending leaves more questions than answers.
It would likely take someone filing a complaint for the PDC to investigate. If they do, lawmakers will need to have documentation and be ready to explain how the expenses are related to their work.
That just seems like too much grey area, regardless of the elected officials’ intentions. We’d like to see the rule changed to allow the money to only be used for subsequent campaigns or donated to charity. That would keep things neat and tidy, and remove questions about restaurant tabs and laundry from the equation.