Shining a light on political ads

Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, January 21st, 2012

Stop Hidden Taxes. California Jobs Initiative. Californians against Higher Taxes. Citizens for an On-Time Budget.

Sounds pretty good, right?

Who doesn't want to create jobs, lower taxes or force legislators to do their jobs? Certainly no voter who is paying attention to California's continued financial woes.

And that's just what the power players behind some of the state's political action committees are betting on when they sponsor political ad campaigns, spending millions to influence Californians while shielding the names of their largest donors.

A bill currently working its way through the Assembly would put an end to all that. AB 1148, the California DISCLOSE Act, sponsored by Los Angeles Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, would stop major donors from hiding behind the innocuous-sounding names of PACs in political ad campaigns.

The bill aims to make it clear where PACs find their funding, be it from large corporations, unions or private donors. Current law requires print, television and radio political ads to identify the name of the committee that has paid for them. Under AB 1148, the three largest funders of an ad would be identified.

Whether such a shift in campaign disclosures will have a great impact on future elections is yet unknown, but consider the fate of the campaign to overturn California's climate change law in 2010.

According to the California Clean Money Campaign, AB 1148's sponsor, Proposition 23 failed in large part because opponents had the financial wherewithal to educate voters about the Texas oil interests behind the measure.

That same year, more than $235 million was spent on ballot measures, much of it by special interests shielded from the public. It's nearly certain anonymous campaign spending on campaigns will increase this year, following the Supreme Court's 5-4 Citizens United v. FEC decision, which prohibits limits on outside spending by corporations, unions or individuals.

The time is right for AB 1148; the Assembly Appropriations Committee passed it Thursday. It faces future challenges in Sacramento, however, where lawmakers benefit the most from political ads on their behalf. The bill will need a two-thirds majority vote by the Legislature in order to find its way onto the ballot.

We hope to see it there. Big campaign spending calls for more transparency - voters should know who is trying to persuade them so they can make informed decisions on the issues and candidates before casting their ballots.

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