Mercury News editorial: Let California voters follow the money

San Jose Mercury News, January 26th, 2012

As political action committees pour millions into often-vicious campaign advertising in the Republican presidential primaries, the most outrageous thing is the murky source of funding: Donors behind the ads usually aren't identified until after the primary is over.

California could prevent that from happening in state and local elections with a bill coming to a vote Tuesday in the Legislature. The California DISCLOSE Act would make sure that political ads placed by PACs prominently name the top three people or corporations that have contributed $10,000 or more. It wouldn't cover federal elections -- Congress has to deal with them -- but at least it would bring clarity to ads for and against California candidates and measures.

Opposition is strong from moneyed interests that would prefer to anonymously slime candidates they don't like. Lawmakers need to stand up for what's right. With virtually no legal options to limit this kind of advertising or the amounts of money going into it, disclosure of backers is the only way voters can judge it.

California already requires more disclosure than most states or the federal government, but there's plenty of room for improvement. On campaign ads, major political donors can still hide behind the meaningless names of political action committees like "Citizens for the Future." The California DISCLOSE Act would require at least the biggest donors -- individuals, corporations, unions or other organizations -- to be presented in easily readable type or, in the case of media like radio, understandable narration.

Voters need this information. More than $127 million was spent by special-interest PACs in California from 2000 to 2010, according to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. Spending in the current decade could make that look like pocket change.

The measure sponsored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Los Angeles, goes further than the current rules, which allow TV ads to bury the names of the top two PAC donors behind the committee name and other $10,000-plus donor names to be disclosed in an obscure place on the California Secretary of State's website. The DISCLOSE Act would require political ads to refer to the PAC's website showing the top five funders, with a link to the Secretary of State's web page that shows the rest.

For federal elections, a DISCLOSE Act passed the House of Representatives in 2010 but failed in the U.S. Senate. U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, is still working to enact some of the same provisions through amendments to other bills, and she has urged President Barack Obama to do more to force disclosure within his executive power.

California can take the lead with its own DISCLOSE Act, which is endorsed by Eshoo and California Common Cause. The bill, AB 1148, has passed two committees in the Assembly and faces a crucial floor vote Tuesday or it will expire.

Its chances have dimmed since the California Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition this week. But legislators need to come down on the side of voters and transparency.

It may cost them some campaign contributions. On the other hand, it might protect them from the kinds of vicious hit pieces that are rarely seen unless backers can skulk in anonymity.

See the article on San Jose Mercury News website

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