California bill should expose 'dark money' behind campaigns

San Francisco Chronicle, April 28th, 2015

The struggle to pass state legislation that would require straightforward disclosure of the true sources of campaign advertising shows the extent to which the status quo will go to resist reform.

Assembly Bill 700, which faces a critical committee hearing in the state Capitol on Wednesday, is designed to require the top three donors of advertising on ballot measures to be clearly identified.

Moreover, it would require the original sources of the contributions -- not just the name of the front group created to blur over the donor's identity -- to be identified.

"Californians are currently being influenced from afar by these vague and innocently named committees," said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, who co-authored AB700 with Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles.

Indeed, as we have observed many times, it has become almost standard procedure for various interests -- from right and left, business and labor -- to conceal their motivations and sources of funding by hiding behind innocuous-sounding or even blatantly deceptive organization names.

Regrettably, but not surprisingly, the incumbents in Sacramento -- who tend to benefit disproportionately from special-interest spending -- want no part of such a requirement.

"We need to begin somewhere," Levine said of the pragmatic reason for limiting the law to ballot measures.

A second Levine measure, AB1494, faces even steeper odds in the Assembly Elections Committee. It would require independent expenditure committees to pay fees -- based on the amount they spend -- to help fund civic engagement, voter registration and voter turnout programs.

Levine called the explosion of unaccountable big-money campaigns a "root cause of voter disgust and disenfranchisement with the elections process." Outside groups spent more than $640 million on state ballot measures in 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed their right to spend unlimited amounts, as a matter of free speech. But it did not give them a right to hide their true identity.

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