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AGO 1973 No. 5 - February 05, 1973
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Slade Gorton | 1969-1980 | Attorney General of Washington

INITIATIVE NO. 276 ‑- LIMITATIONS ON ELECTORAL CAMPAIGN EXPENDITURES

(1) The provisions of § 14 (2) of Initiative No. 276 setting limits upon campaign expenditures in connection with ballot propositions apply to excess property tax levy campaigns in all school districts including those having less than 5,000 registered voters.

(2) Section 14 (2) of Initiative No. 276 does not limit the total amounts which may be expended by all political committees either in support of, or in opposition to, a school district's excess levy proposition; instead, it separately limits the combined expenditures of all such committees working for the proposition and those of all such committees working against it.

(3) The limitation set forth in § 14 (2) of Initiative No.276 for less than state‑wide ballot propositions is based upon the number of voters registered in the constituency in which the election is being held ‑ without regard to the number of voters actually voting on the proposition in question.

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                                                                 February 5, 1973

Honorable Wayne Ehlers
State Representative, 2nd District
Legislative Building
Olympia, Washington 98504

                                                                                                                   Cite as:  AGO 1973 No. 5

Dear Sir:

            This is written in response to your recent letter requesting our opinion on several questions pertaining to the limitations on electoral campaign expenditures which are set forth in Initiative No. 276.  We paraphrase your questions as follows:

            (1) Do the provisions of § 14 (2) of Initiative No. 276 setting limits upon campaign expenditures in connection with ballot propositions apply to excess property tax levy  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] campaigns in school districts having less than 5,000 registered voters?

            (2) Does § 14 (2) of Initiative No. 276 limit the total amounts which may be expended by all political committees either in support of, or in opposition to, a school district's excess levy proposition?

            (3) Is the limitation set forth in § 14 (2) of Initiative No. 276 for less than state‑wide ballot propositions based upon the number of voters registered in the constituency in which the election is being held ‑ without regard to the number of voters actually voting on the proposition in question?

            We answer questions (1) and (3) in the affirmative and question (2) in the negative.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            Chapter I of Initiative No. 276, comprising §§ 3-14 of this measure, regulates financing of electoral campaigns and requires certain detailed reports of campaign contributions and expenditures by candidates and political committees ‑ a term which is defined by § 2 (22) of the initiative as follows:

            "'Political committee' means any person (except a candidate or an individual dealing with his own funds or property) having the expectation of receiving contributions or making expenditures in support of, or opposition to, any candidate or any ballot proposition."

            Your questions all pertain to the extent to which § 14 of the initiative restricts the amounts that a political committee supporting or opposing a school district excess levy proposition may expend in its campaign.1/   Although  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] this matter is particularly covered by subsection (2) of this section, we think it well, in order to place this subsection in proper focus, to quote the section in its entirety, as follows:

            "(1) The total of expenditures made in any election campaign in connection with any public office shall not exceed the larger of the following amounts:

            "(a) Ten cents multiplied by the number of voters registered in the constituency at the last general election for the public office; or

            "(b) Five thousand dollars; or

            "(c) A sum equal to the public salary which will be paid to the occupant of the office which the candidate seeks, during the term for which the successful candidate will be elected:  PROVIDED, that with respect to candidates for the office of governor and lieutenant governor of the State of Washington only, a sum equal to the public salary which will be paid the governor during the term sought, multiplied by two; and with respect to candidates for the state legislature only, a sum equal to the public salary which will be paid to a member of the state senate during his term.

            "(2) In any election campaign in connection with any state‑wide ballot proposition the total of expenditures made shall not exceed one hundred thousand dollars.  The total of such expenditures in any election campaign in connection with any other ballot proposition shall not exceed ten cents multiplied by the number of voters registered in the constituency voting on such proposition."

            The term "election campaign," as used in this subsection, is defined by § 2 (11) of the initiative as follows:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            "'Election campaign' means any campaign in support of or in opposition to a candidate for election to public office and any campaign in support of, or in opposition to, a ballot proposition."

            The term "ballot proposition," in turn, is defined by subsection (2) of § 2 as follows:

            "(2) 'Ballot proposition' means any 'measure' as defined by R.C.W. 29.01.110 [[RCW 29.01.110]], or any initiative, recall, or referendum proposition proposed to be submitted to the voters of any specific constituency which has been filed with the appropriate election officer of that constituency."

            Unquestionably, a proposal by a school district to levy property taxes under such circumstances as require voter approval under Article VII, § 2 (Amendment 17) of our state Constitution and RCW 84.52.052 constitutes a "ballot proposition" within the meaning of this definition.

            Question (1):

            Your first question assumes the foregoing general proposition and asks whether, in view of § 3 of Initiative No. 276, the provisions of § 14 (2),supra, are applicable to excess levy campaigns in school districts having less than 5,000 registered voters.  This opening section of Chapter I reads as follows:

            "The provisions of this act relating to election campaigns shall apply in all election campaigns other than (a) for precinct committeeman; (b) for the President and Vice President of the United States; and (c) for an office the constituency of which does not encompass a whole county and which contains less than five thousand registered voters as of the date of the most recent general election in such district."

            However, none of the exclusions listed in this provision,  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] including the exclusion for constituencies having less than 5,000 registered voters, pertains to ballot propositions; instead, they all deal with campaigns for elective offices only.  Accordingly, it follows that the expenditure limitations set forth in § 14 (2), supra,are applicable to excess levy campaigns even in those school districts having less than this number of voters.

            Question (2):

            Next you have asked:  Does § 14 (2) of Initiative No. 276 limit the total amounts which may be expended by all political committees either in support of, or in opposition to, a school district's excess levy proposition?

            In our opinion, it does not.  To so read this subsection would be to empower one or more such committees, workingfor a given proposition (for example), by themselves spending the maximum allowable amount, to preclude any expenditures by any other political committees workingin opposition to the same proposition ‑ or vice versa.

            We think it, however, highly unreasonable to attribute such an intent to the framers of this initiative.  In this connection we think that the following excerpt from In re Horse Heaven Irrigation District, 11 Wn.2d 218, 226, 118 P.2d 972 (1941), involving legislative intent, is equally applicable to legislation enacted by the people through the initiative process:

            "The courts, in pursuance of the general object of giving effect to the intention of the legislature, are not controlled by the literal meaning of the language of the statute, but the spirit or intention of the law prevails over the letter thereof. . . .

            ". . .

            "It is a rule of such universal application as to need no citation of sustaining authority that no construction should be given to a statute which leads to gross injustice or absurdity."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]

            We have heretofore quoted, and here repeat for ease of reference, the definition of "election campaign" in § 2 (11) of the initiative; i.e.,

            ". . . any campaign in support of or in opposition to a candidate for election to public office and any campaign in support of, or in opposition to, a ballot proposition."

            Read in the light of this definition, we do not think it proper to characterize § 14 (2) as setting a limitation on the total amounts which may be expended by all political committees (as defined in § 2 (22), supra) working either in support of, or in opposition to, a given ballot proposition.  Instead, it seems to us that in the case of a ballot proposition, the activities of such political committees as are working for the measure constitute one campaign and those of such political committees as are working against the measure constitute another campaign.  From this it follows that § 14 (2) is to be read as setting separate (but equal, of course) limits for each side ‑ to the end that the combined expenditures of any and all political committees working for a school district levy proposition will be legal so long as they do not exceed ". . . ten cents multiplied by the number of voters registered in the constituency2/ voting on such proposition."  Likewise, the combined expenditures of all political committees opposing the same proposition will be similarly but separately limited.

            Question (3):

            Your final question involves the meaning to be given to this last quoted phrase.  The issue raised is whether the phrase "voting on such proposition" modifies the entire preceding phrase "voters registered in the constituency" or, instead, merely identifies the constituency involved as that in which the election is being held.  If the first of these two constructions is adopted it will, of course, be necessary to answer your third question in such a manner as to require that in order to avoid a violation of the initiative, any political committees working for, or against, a school district excess levy ballot  [[Orig. Op. Page 7]] proposition will have to be able accurately to predict in advance the number of registered voters in the district who will actually be voting on the proposition at the election ‑ or risk the imposition of the various civil penalties which are provided for under the initiative for its violation.  Included among these penalties, notably, is that of a potential invalidation of the election by court decree under § 39 (1).

            Again, however, we believe this construction should be rejected on grounds of unreasonableness and absurdity.  Accord,In re Horse Heaven Irrigation District, supra.  We do not think a court would hold that the amounts which may be expended (mostly, of course, in advance of the election) by political committees involved in campaigns for or against a local ballot proposition are to be measured by such a fortuitous future event as the number of voters actually voting on the proposition.  Rather, our inclination is to adopt what appears to us to be a more reasonable construction of this language and thereby to read the phrase "in the constituency voting on such proposition" as merely identifying the constituency (here, a school district)3/ in which the election is being held.

            In accordance with this construction we would conclude, for example, that in a school district inhabited by ten thousand registered voters, the maximum amount which may be spent by the political committee or committees supporting a school district excess levy proposition would be $1,000 (ten cents for each voter registered in the district), regardless of how many of those registered voters actually participate in the election.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 8]]

            We trust that the foregoing will be of some assistance to you.

Very truly yours,


SLADE GORTON
Attorney General


PHILIP H. AUSTIN
Deputy Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/Of course, any such expenditures must be made from private funds and not from the funds of the school district itself.  See, AGO 65-66 No. 102 [[to James Munro, Prosecuting Attorney, Kitsap County on August 9, 1966]], copy enclosed.

2/See, footnote 3, infra.

3/See the definition of "constituency" appearing in Webster's Third New International Dictionary, at p. 486, as follows:

            ":  a body of citizens or voters that is entitled to elect a representative to a legislative or other public body:  the residents in an electoral district:  an electoral district . . ."

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