If there’s one main reason behind the distrust many Californians feel for government and elected officials at all levels, it may be the way special interests regularly pour millions of dollars into election campaigns while managing to hide their identities.
There was hope last year for an end to the sense of political impotence and frustration this often produces among voters. With two-thirds majorities for Democrats in both houses of the state Legislature and a governor who helped write this state’s original clean elections law, the Political Reform Act of 1975, the expectation was that a major disclosure bill would pass.
But those two-thirds majorities turned out to be ephemeral and sporadic, coming and going irregularly as politicians played musical chairs when vacancies occurred in congressional, state Senate and Assembly seats.
So the single legislative bill that could have done the most to restore trust in time for next year’s election languished. It’s not dead, having been turned into a two-year bill after it passed the Senate by an easy 28-11 margin, with most Republicans voting no.
But no Assembly Republican voted for the bill, known informally as the Disclose Act and officially as SB 52, originally sponsored by Sens. Mark Leno of San Francisco and Jerry Hill of San Mateo.
So when it was due for an August hearing in an Assembly elections committee, it was converted into a two-year bill instead, with that house due to take it up again in 2014.
There is no way this or any other proposal can hope to keep big money, both from within California and outside, from playing a major role in the state’s politics, electoral and initiative. But this measure is intended at least to let voters know who is paying for what.
The need for a law like this became urgent after the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious 2010 Citizens United decision declared corporations the equivalent of human beings, giving them the right to donate limitless amounts to political campaigns not formally controlled by candidates.
This led to independent expenditure committees, which run ads at the very least dovetailing with those of the candidates. So we get subterfuge, as with the last-minute 2012 dumping of millions of dollars into California proposition campaigns by out-of-state groups with vague names and anonymous donors, many still secret.
The Disclose Act, first sponsored in the Legislature by former Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Ventura County, now a congresswoman, 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 and radio ads, mass mailers, billboards and websites.
So voters would know before they heard a message who is behind it.
This bill passed the Assembly in 2012, but time ran out before the Senate considered it.
Its passage in the new year has the backing of Assembly Speaker John Pérez of Los Angeles, giving it a strong shot of getting the two-thirds backing it needs to become law so long as the Democrats’ current two-thirds majority proves a bit more stable than it was through most of 2013.
The need for transparency allowing voters to peel away the veil of anonymity many campaign donors now hide behind is more pressing today than ever, thanks to the unlimited quantities of cash corporations can deploy.
That’s what made the Disclose Act the most important bill the Legislature considered in the past year, more so than fracking regulations, prison changes, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants or anything else. It will be again in 2014.
Other open-government bills also will be on the docket in this session, but if this one passes, California voters could become the best informed in the nation. And if it happens here, count on it being imitated elsewhere, like many other California-first laws covering everything from medical marijuana to property tax limits.
But that happens only if this measure gets a two-thirds vote in the Assembly, which the vagaries of 2013 proved is no sure thing.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org