Political nonprofits’ blurred lines: 6 changes needed for transparency

The public needs to know more about who is influencing their opinion and elected officials via nonprofit organizations such as Transportation Choices Coalition. Here are some potential changes to improve disclosure and provide more clarity for nonprofits.

The remarkable influence that Transportation Choices Coalition wields over elections, and the paucity of information available about its funding, begs for changes in state and federal disclosure rules.

As I outlined in the first part of this series, the Seattle advocacy group takes credit for winning dozens of ballot measures, raising more than $70 billion for transit projects.

Yet it hasn’t registered as a political organization and doesn’t disclose how much funding it receives from giant construction firms that benefit from the spending.

Transportation Choices says it follows state and federal disclosure rules. But they aren’t working as intended.

Changes are needed to ensure the public knows more about who is influencing their opinion and the outcome of public policy, ballot measures and elections.

Here’s a list for lawmakers and the state Public Disclosure Commission to consider.

1. Grass-roots lobbying and education. Regulations should reflect modern grass-roots lobbying practices that use public-education and outreach efforts to influence opinion, build support and acquire names for campaign mailing lists.

This blurs the line between community education — which is considered a charitable, apolitical activity worthy of tax exemption — and political activity.


2. Policy lobbying. The definition of traditional lobbying needs to be broadened in Washington. It currently applies primarily to directly influencing specific legislation, such as a bill in the Legislature.

But lobbyists also influence policy before it becomes legislation and after, when it is implemented.

For example, a lobbyist could work with government officials to develop a policy to replace arterial lanes with trolley tracks. This could coalesce and secure government support before any legislative vote. After the vote, the coalition could influence how the project is implemented and which arterials should receive this treatment first.

Reports of lobbying activity should cover every stage of this process, not just the legislative decision.

An easy fix would be to restore the pre-1990 language in the state public disclosure law, which used to say that lobbying “includes, but is…

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