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
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
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
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 Perez 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, drivers licenses for
undocumented immigrants or anything else. It will be again
Other open-government bills will also 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.
Thomas D. Elias is a writer in Southern California.