Voters have a right to know who is paying for political campaigns before they go to the polls. But even in California, where strong state campaign finance laws set an example for the nation, it’s not that easy to see who is bankrolling political candidates or initiatives.
That could change if California passes the “Disclose Act” (AB 249), the first bill in the nation to require ballot measure ads, including those from SuperPACS, to clearly and prominently label their true funders on the ads themselves.
If AB 249 becomes law, the major funders of TV, radio, online, and print ads about ballot measures would be disclosed; donors of $50,000 or more would be revealed with guidelines set to assure that their names are readable; and the top two funders of radio ads and robocalls would be made public. In addition, a companion bill in the legislature would require that initiative petitions circulated by paid signature gatherers clearly disclose their top three funders.
Nothing’s perfect. The bill was watered down in the Democratic-controlled Legislature because of opposition from some labor groups. As a result, actual funders are required to be listed on ballot measure ads, but not candidate ads. In addition, the latest rendition of the bill leaves out a large and growing sector of political advertising — the commercials and mailers paid for with so-called “independent expenditures.”
Independent expenditures are provided by super-PAC style interest groups from across the political spectrum that pool money from several sources. They are spent on campaigns for and against candidates, but without any direct involvement from the candidates themselves. Last year, these independent groups spent $80.7 million on campaigns in California as they worked to sway the outcome of numerous legislative races according to a report in CA Matters.
Though the Disclose Act would not cover regulations for candidate ads and independent expenditures, it is significant that citizens would still be able to see the actual names of ad funders, not some innocuous sounding front group such as “Californians for a Better Tomorrow.”
That’s a sizable step in the right direction. Since the Supreme Court decided Citizens United in 2010, campaigns have become awash in dark money. More than $1 billion was spent on California ballot measure campaigns between 2012 and 2016, and too often, the sources of those dollars were blurred in hard-to-read print or deceptive group names.
Californians of all stripes overwhelmingly support more transparency in political campaigns. The Disclose Act failed by a single vote in the state Senate last year, and the CA Legislature has grappled with transparency bills four times in the past seven years. Despite its shortcomings, state and national good government organizations, such as The California Clean Money Campaign and Common Cause, are determined to push the Disclose Act past the finish line this time.
They hope to move AB 249 through the legislature when it returns August 21. If passed and signed by the governor this year, the Disclose Act will shed more light for voters who head to the polls for midterm elections in 2018.
Office: California Common Cause
Issues: Money in Politics