Ex-lawmakers want to eliminate surplus accounts

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Two former members of the state Legislature said Tuesday it is time for lawmakers to eliminate campaign surplus accounts, which some politicians have tapped for iPads, clothing, car repairs, tuition and alcohol.

Former state Rep. Toby Nixon and former state Sen. Bill Finkbeiner said they have started working with lawmakers to close the accounts after an Associated Press story identified a variety of questionable expenditures. Finkbeiner said legislators appear to be using the surplus funds as an extra checking account.

"I just feel like they're being abused," Finkbeiner said. "There's not enough oversight."

Nixon, a Republican, is currently president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which bills itself as a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization advocating for transparency. Finkbeiner is a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

State law allows politicians to use their surplus accounts for a variety of things, including an umbrella option for "office-related expenses." Nixon and Finkbeiner say that is too broad. They propose the elimination of the accounts and would allow politicians to either return excess money to contributors or to save it for future elections.

Finkbeiner had a surplus account when he was in the Legislature and reported spending the money on meals, printing expenses and travel. Much of it was forwarded to the Senate Republicans campaign committee, which is how many lawmakers shed their excess cash.

Nixon also sent some of his money to political groups, and some of it was donated in 2009 and 2007 to the Washington Coalition for Open Government, where he serves as a volunteer leader.

Nixon said the accounts serve as a temptation for politicians to misuse the money. He said no lawmakers have agreed to introduce the legislation, but he suspects there are some who will be on board.

"I do think there are quite a few legislators on both sides of the aisle who are very committed to ethics and would be willing to sponsor this kind of bill," Nixon said.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said it's something he is going to explore in the coming days. He didn't create a surplus account after winning his Senate seat but said he sees opportunity to provide additional transparency and clarification for lawmakers who do use them.

"There's a lot of gray area in there," Hill said. "In the end, voters want transparency and they don't like the gray areas."

Nixon and Finkbeiner also said they want to see the Legislature increase funding for the state's Public Disclosure Commission, the agency that oversees campaign finance matters.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.