Voters still in the dark on campaign funding

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A legislative attempt to shed light on major funders of political campaign ads died in Sacramento last week, and the politics surrounding its demise reflect a split between groups who are normally allies on the left.

The California DISCLOSE Act -- which stands for “Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections” – needed a two-thirds vote to pass both houses of the California Legislature, but ended up being withdrawn without ever being brought to a vote.

The bill would have required the three largest funders of television and print ads, as well as the two largest funders of radio ads and robocalls, to be clearly identified in ballot measure ads. It sought to close a loophole allowing funders to disguise themselves behind ambiguous committee names.

Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, said it would have prevented similar scenarios to what happened with Proposition 32 in 2012. In that case, voters remained in the dark on who the true funders were when an Arizona nonprofit calling itself “Americans for Responsible Leadership” funneled $11 million into a committee supporting the ballot measure, which would have restricted unions’ ability to raise campaign funding.  In reality, the money could be traced back to the notorious right-wing Koch Brothers but this was never evident in print, radio, or television ads.

Support for the CA DISCLOSE among Californians was substantial – 78,000 people signed petitions urging the Legislature to pass it, according to the California Clean Money Campaign, and 400 organizations statewide backed it. A poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in March of 2013 reflected 84 percent voter support for increasing disclosure on ballot measures.

Nevertheless, it lacked momentum to even be brought to a vote in Sacramento. Support for approval in the Legislature was reportedly building until opponents lobbied against it. Said opponents were strange bedfellows indeed, consisting of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association, a right-wing organization that opposes all taxes on Californians, and a trio of powerful forces in labor, including SEIU California, the California Teachers Association, and the California Labor Federation.

“Organized labor significantly and very strongly opposed it and worked to kill it,” Lange said. “Their opposition said they were opposed to technical details of the bill [and requirements for] finding the original funders – they opposed giving the FPPC that much power. It’s not clear that’s the real answer.”

A call to SEIU to ask why it lobbied against the DISCLOSE Act was not returned by press time.

Sen. Mark Leno, who co-authored the DISCLOSE Act, along with Sen. Jerry Hill and Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins, vowed to continue the fight next year.

“I am disappointed we weren’t able to send this legislation to the governor this year, but in this process, an even stronger coalition has emerged to keep the issue and movement alive,” Leno said in a press release. “I look forward to working with Speaker Atkins, Senator Hill and the California Clean Money Campaign as we redouble our commitment to finding common ground that will ultimately prove successful for this cause, which is so fundamental to our democracy.”

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