Editorial: Legislators take a walk rather than expand campaign disclosure

Sacramento Bee, September 2nd, 2014

In the legislative session just ended, state lawmakers gave speeches and cast votes intended to show they are on the side of good and open government.

They did, in fact, approve some noteworthy restrictions on how they do business. But they took a collective walk on one of the most far-reaching measures of the year, Senate Bill 52.

SB 52 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, sought to help voters understand who is behind campaigns for and against ballot measures by requiring that the identities of the donors be listed clearly on radio and television commercials.

Courts increasingly take a dim view on donation restrictions. But disclosure of donors is the one campaign finance reform that works to inform the electorate, and so far has withstood court scrutiny. That makes the Legislature's failure to expand transparency by approving SB 52 all the more troubling.

The bill, sponsored by the California Clean Money Campaign, sought to require disclosure of the first few donors to a measure. It would apply to the left and right, corporate and labor. Tobacco giant Philip Morris, oil magnates Charles and David Koch, San Francisco billionaire-environmentalist Tom Steyer, Service Employees International Union and California Teachers Association all would be identified.

Many opponents had unsheathed their knives ready to kill the bill. Corporate donors disliked the disclosure requirement, perhaps not surprisingly. But union lobbyists and attorneys contended the bill would have imposed untenable burdens on labor donors, and drove the final spike into the bill.

With negotiations at an impasse, backers came up with a compromise that the Fair Political Practices Commission be charged with responsibility for sorting out who should be identified as early donors. However, no political consultant is eager to grant the FPPC greater authority. The watchdog agency takes pride in being an equal opportunity regulator, thankfully so.

The bill, which sought to amend California's Political Reform Act, required a two-thirds vote. The Democratic-controlled Senate had approved an early version of it in May.

But in the Assembly, where Democrats hold even greater majority, the bill failed on Friday, the final night of the session. It never came up for a vote, a craven way to torpedo legislation.

Democrats aren't solely to blame. Republicans share in the shame. GOP leaders used to claim that they oppose campaign contribution limits and instead support the notion of full public disclosure.

When given the opportunity to put their stated view into practice by supporting SB 52, they turned their backs, with one exception. Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, was the only Republican to vote for the bill. Good for him.

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