Marin Voice: Legislation aims to neutralize big money in politics

By Greg Brockbank, Commentary
Marin Independent Journal, May 9th, 2015

The public is increasingly dismayed by the torrent of political ads bombarding airwaves and mail boxes at election time. The year 2016 is expected to be a record-breaking year, with estimated expenditures of $3.5 billion.

The Koch Brothers' network alone has announced a 2016 campaign budget of $889 million.

But the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated spending limits in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, ruling that political spending was a form of free speech and thus enjoyed the highest level of protection. Plus, the courts have ruled that corporations have many of the same rights that people have, although there are active movements for a U.S. constitutional amendment to change both of those rulings.

It got much worse in 2010 with the Citizens United decision, allowing unlimited anonymous donations by corporations and individuals to independent expenditure committees (not coordinated with candidates' campaigns).

This opened the floodgates.

One important partial solution would allow us to know just who -- or, more often, which corporations -- are funding the ads.

In March, our own Assemblyman Marc Levine, and Assembly Appropriations Committee Chairman Jimmy Gomez, introduced AB 700, the Disclose Act.

The Disclose Act would require the top three original funders of every ad to be clearly stated, in readable type if in print, and for adequate time if over the airwaves.

The "dark money," as it is called, would have to come to light.

Currently, the required disclosure states only the name of some made-up committee, a name that may be downright misleading.

For instance, in November we were subjected to innumerable ads against Proposition 45, which would have put some constraints on health insurance premium increases by allowing them to be vetoed by our state insurance commissioner, as he does for other insurance increases, and as most other states allow.

Many of these ads opposing this measure ostensibly came from "Californians Against Higher Health Care Costs." But who really paid for these ads? Health insurance companies -- Kaiser, Wellpoint and Blue Shield of California -- were the top three.

Frequently, ballot measures head into the final month before an election leading in the polls by big margins. They are then blasted with negative ads funded by special interests but under phony names -- and lose.

Might the outcome have been different in the case of 2006's proposed oil severance tax if, instead of "Citizens Against Higher Taxes," the top funders of the ads were revealed as Chevron, Aera Energy and Occidental Oil and Gas?

What about 2012's losing GMO labeling initiative? Shouldn't we have been told that the "Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition" was actually funded primarily by Monsanto, Dupont and Pepsico?

Here, even the Supreme Court is with us. Along with the Citizens United decision, eight of the nine justices noted the problems that result when groups run ads "hiding behind dubious and misleading names." Disclosure, they said, was necessary to provide "information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters."

Syndicated columnist Thomas Elias calls the Disclose Act the most important bill in Sacramento this year, and over 80 percent of both Democratic and Republican voters support it. It passed the Assembly Elections Committee last month and next will go to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

An almost identical bill last year, also called the Disclose Act, was supported by 400 organizations, including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Sierra Club California, along with many newspapers, and statewide leaders. It passed the state Senate 28-11, and after passing two Assembly committees, was withdrawn just before its scheduled vote on the Assembly floor because of last-minute opposition and a shortage of a few votes.

This year's Disclose Act (AB 700) is sponsored, once again, by the California Clean Money Campaign, and you can add your support and/or donate to the cause at

Ironic as it is that we need to raise money to neutralize the effect of big money in politics, we do.

You can also come to a party at my house on May 23 to support this cause.

Contact me at 415-717-7056, or at for details.

Attorney and former San Rafael City Councilman Greg Brockbank owns Marin Law Center. He is a former College of Marin trustee.

See the article on Marin Independent Journal website

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