Campaign finance disclosure should be top legislative priority
January 10, 2013
Democrats are feeling their oats this month, enjoying a sense they are unstoppable because they now enjoy one-party rule in Sacramento, including two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature and a Democrat securely in the governor's office, looking like a lock for re-election if he chooses to run in 2014.
But as they contemplate restoring some programs they've reluctantly helped cut over the last four years of deep budget deficits, they should not lose sight of the rare opportunity their majorities give them to make California politics the most transparent in the nation.
One thing they will do if they're as reform-minded as they claim is revive some form of an idea that failed when proposed as a ballot initiative in 2002: Require all advertisements for propositions to list the three largest donors behind those ads in type as large as the biggest anywhere else in the ad.
That measure would pass constitutional muster because it doesn't restrict anyone's free speech rights, but it would also make voters who often don't read the fine print at the end of political TV commercials aware of who's behind the messages they're seeing and hearing.
Plenty of Democrats are just as interested as Republicans in disguising their donors.
Some Democrats clearly want to do this. They were stung last fall by an October-surprise $11 million in donations from an Arizona nonprofit that paid for scores of commercials opposing Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increase measure and backing another that could have greatly reduced the political clout of labor unions.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) quickly sued to compel disclosure of the true sources of that money but was ultimately stymied when the nonprofit Americans for Responsible Leadership revealed only that it got the money from another Arizona nonprofit, which in turn got it from a nonprofit in Virginia. Even now, no one is sure whose money it was, as the secondary groups' names — Americans for Job Security and the Center to Protect Patient Rights — are bland titles signifying little.
The furor, of course, ultimately helped Brown's measure win and did nothing for the anti-union proposition. But for anyone interested in electoral openness, it's vital to identify the sources of this type of so-called "dark money."
Because over the last 40 years, Democrats have been far more active than Republicans in seeking to identify real campaign donors — Brown sponsored and helped write a landmark initiative on the subject in 1974 — their new supermajorities give some hope for progress here.
One measure proposed in the Legislature's short December meeting would revive the essence of the 2002 proposition, forcing the top funders behind all political ads to list themselves in those ads. Passing this requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature, as it amounts to a revision of Brown's 39-year-old Political Reform Act.
Even with Democrats in charge, two-thirds support is far from assured. Plenty of Democrats are just as interested as Republicans in disguising their donors. It remains to be seen whether they'll rise above those selfish interests.
But if Democrats are smart and if they can stay unified (something they've rarely managed in either Sacramento or Washington, D.C.), they'll pass campaign reform quickly, making sure new rules are in effect long before the next primary election in June 2014.
"Without disclosure, voters are easily fooled," says the California Clean Money Campaign. That group names as particularly deceptive the ads for last fall's Proposition 33 insurance rate measure, which listed neither of its primary sponsors, Mercury Insurance and its chairman George Joseph, on its website, in TV commercials or even in its ballot argument.
Yet, when a disclosure measure came up in the last legislative session, Republicans voted against it unanimously. One GOP assemblyman, Don Wagner of Irvine, objected to the bill's requiring sponsoring company logos to appear on advertisements, agreeing with businesses that this might somehow dilute their brand image.
The answer to that complaint: If public knowledge that a company backs a political measure could hurt sales, maybe that company ought to think twice about what it's backing.
Even without legislative action, the FPPC has already voted to require groups that spend more than $100,000 for an initiative petition to reveal their backing on the measure's organization papers. That falls far short of forcing any group to list itself on actual petitions, the only place most signers would see any listing. But at least it's something.
The commission will also require candidates and committees to identify themselves when sending out mass emails. But those IDs can be meaningless committee names.
Taken together, it's clear that without a major upgrade to the Political Reform Act, big donors will continue trying to pull the wool over voters' eyes. For any legislature at any time, preventing this kind of dishonesty through omission or evasion should be a top priority.
Thomas Elias is a syndicated columnist who appears in The Union.
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