Viewpoints: Change the campaign disclosure game

By Trent Lange, Commentary
Sacramento Bee, November 25th, 2012

It took weeks of legal suits and an emergency ruling by the California Supreme Court to compel Americans for Responsible Leadership to reveal its hidden funding sources. The shadowy Arizona nonprofit caused an uproar by funneling $11 million of secret money into California, trying to buy results on Proposition 30 and Proposition 32.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission called it "the largest contribution ever disclosed as campaign money laundering in California history."

Despite such heroic legal efforts and the egregious secretive attempt to manipulate our elections, all that was revealed was that the money came from two other out-of-state nonprofits that also conceal their donors. The only hint of their donors' identities - information voters overwhelming want - is that they're connected to the billionaire Koch brothers. We need to restore sanity and transparency to our elections by passing the California DISCLOSE Act.

Luckily, this time the "dark money" contributions backfired due to media coverage and the unseemliness of $11 million of laundered out-of-state money trying to buy our elections. But it shouldn't take last-minute Supreme Court rulings to reveal who is behind political ads.

Clearly, we need to require any organization that spends significant money on California campaigns - including Arizona nonprofits - to report the sources of those funds.

But that alone won't be enough. Most of the $372 million in ballot measure spending this year was on initiatives either put on the ballot by billionaires and corporations or opposed by them. Though most of their spending was actually reported on the secretary of state's website, most voters didn't know because they don't visit it.

Instead, voters see an avalanche of ads with fine print disclosures referring to misleading names like "Stop Special Interest Money Now" or "The 2012 Auto Insurance Discounts Act."

Because of this, vast sums are wasted simply educating voters about who is funding the other side. For example, opponents of Proposition 23, the initiative that would have repealed California's landmark climate change laws, spent more than $30 million explaining it was funded by Texas oil companies Valero and Tesoro.

Californians deserve better. We deserve to know who is behind political ads when we see them.

Fortunately, there's a growing consensus on how real disclosure on political ads should look. Assembly Bill 1648, the California DISCLOSE Act, authored by Assembly member Julia Brownley and sponsored by the California Clean Money Campaign, required television ads to clearly list their top three funders - and their logos - on a full screen with black background for three seconds. It also required them to list a website containing more funding details. Radio and print ads must have similarly clear disclosures so there's no mistaking who's behind them, either.

There is vast support for the California DISCLOSE Act. More than 84,000 Californians signed petitions urging the Legislature to pass it - a remarkable number for a bill. In addition, more than 350 organizations and leaders endorsed AB 1648, including the League of Women Voters of California and California Common Cause. California Church Impact called it a "profound moral issue."

President Barack Obama and national Democrats have pushed for a similar national DISCLOSE Act, only to be stopped by Republican filibusters despite polls showing Republican voters overwhelmingly support increased disclosure, just as all voters do.

Fortunately, California doesn't have to worry about filibusters. Despite heavy lobbyist opposition, AB 1648 passed the Assembly thanks to the leadership of Speaker John A. Perez, a co-author. Every Democrat and independent voted for it or the previous version.

Unfortunately, it was too late to also pass the Senate this year, but the bill will be reintroduced next year. With strong support in the Senate and Perez's promise that he will get it through the Assembly again, the California DISCLOSE Act stands a good chance of passing.

Californians should settle for nothing less. Real disclosure reform must not only force secretive organizations to report who provided their campaign funding, but also change disclosure on ads themselves so voters have the crucial knowledge about who is paying for them, when they see them. Californians' ability to determine the future of our state is at stake.

Trent Lange is president of the California Clean Money Campaign, the sponsor of the California DISCLOSE Act.

See the article on Sacramento Bee website

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