If there’s one dominant reason for the distrust many Californians feel for governments at all levels, it’s the sense that special interests regularly pour millions of dollars into federal, state and local election campaigns while contriving to hide their identities.
That reality makes SB52, the so-called DISCLOSE Act sponsored by Democratic state Sens. Mark Leno of San Francisco and Jerry Hill of San Mateo County, the single most important measure state lawmakers will consider this year.
Yes, they’ll face other big and contentious issues. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget bills will get plenty of attention from the public and the Legislature before this month is out. So will plans for two massive tunnels to carry Sacramento River water south. No one will ignore the debate about how to divvy up new tax money from last year’s Proposition 30 among public school districts.
Each of these deserves all the attention it can get. But none will deal with the most basic issue standing between citizens and the politicians they elect, the same issue that makes voters distrust many ballot proposition campaigns.
The problem is money, which the most formidable state Assembly speaker ever, Jesse Unruh, famously called “the mother’s milk of politics.”
Money has poured into politics in unprecedented quantities since the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United decision, the one declaring corporations the equivalent of human beings, giving them the right to donate limitless amounts to political campaigns so long as those campaigns are not controlled directly by candidates.
This led to so-called independent expenditure committees, which run ads that at the very least, often dovetail with those of the candidates they back and hide the identities of outfits that actually put up the money.
There is no federal initiative process, so Citizens United can’t be reversed by the people. It would take years to pass a constitutional amendment overturning this, and there is no serious move afoot now for such an amendment.
Which means anyone worried about honesty in elections, anyone interested in knowing which candidates are beholden to whom or what persons or companies are behind any particular ballot proposition, needs an antidote of a different kind.
The most effective vaccine against political lies and obfuscation is knowledge of who’s paying the piper, because that person or company will usually also call the tunes to which candidates dance.
Enter the DISCLOSE Act. Sponsored last year by former Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Ventura County, now in Congress, this measure would force every political TV commercial in California to disclose its three largest funders prominently for six seconds at the start of the ads, rather than using small print at the end. Similar rules would apply to print ads, radio spots, mass mailers, billboards and websites. Ads would also have to list a website that shows their 10 largest donors and links to all contributors of $10,000 or more.
Doing this could end many subterfuges in politics, including items like last year’s last-minute dumping of millions of dollars into California ballot proposition campaigns by out-of-state groups with vague names and anonymous donors. There would be no more point for tobacco companies opposed to local anti-smoking regulations, for one example, to call their committee “Californians for Statewide Smoking Regulations,” when it's really out to kill such laws. For the companies themselves would be named in white-on-black lettering in good-sized fonts.
This measure passed the Assembly last year, but time ran out before the Senate considered it. So it’s back for another try, and because it would revise and enhance the 1974 Political Reform Act, passed by voters as an initiative, it needs two-thirds majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate.
Good as SB52 sounds, it’s not quite a match for a failed measure put forward almost 10 years ago that would have required much the same information, but would also have demanded that it be displayed in type matching the largest size anywhere else in the ad.
Other open-government bills are making their way through the Legislature this year, but if this one passes, California voters could quickly become the best informed in the nation. And, like many other trends from medical marijuana to lower property taxes, if it happens in California, you can count on it happening in other states soon.
But only if it gets two-thirds votes in both houses of the Legislature, no sure thing when many members themselves depend on obfuscated, big donors.
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