Mercury News editorial: Truth in campaign advertising should be the law

San Jose Mercury News, August 26th, 2014

Supreme Court rulings leave little room to regulate the influence of big money on political campaigns except in one very important area: disclosure. Corporations, unions and other organizations have unfettered rights to bankroll campaigns, but at least they can still be required to clearly disclose who's writing the checks.

Yet for the second year, Californians' attempt to pass a law requiring clear disclosure of who's funding campaigns is in trouble. Voters and good-government organizations need to gang up on the Assembly by Saturday, when the DISCLOSE Act, SB 52, is scheduled for a floor vote. Powerful opponents empowered by Citizens United to wield unlimited financial influence would prefer to do it anonymously, and they are besieging their bought-and-paid-for pawns in the Assembly.

No, it's not the Koch Brothers. It's not Chevron or the NRA. Here's a hint: this is a Democratic Assembly.

That's right. It's unions. Specifically the Service Employees International Union and the California Teachers Association -- which happen to be among the largest campaign spenders in the state, according to Maplight, the nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.

The DISCLOSE Act was authored by Sens. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. It would require campaign material to include a readable (no fine print) and factual list of its three top funders instead of using generic committee names like "Citizens for Mom and Apple Pie" and a general description of the members. Donors usually can be found in filings with the Secretary of State, but if you don't go looking, and if news reporters aren't covering the campaigns, you'd never know.

The Senate has done its part, but Democrats' support in the Assembly is wavering. We'll be watching Bay Area lawmakers on this one, and if you care about transparency, contact your own representative. Find him or her at

We don't agree with the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United. Neither corporations nor unions should have the same free-speech rights as individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence public policy. We suspect the Founding Fathers would be appalled.

But if we had to choose between trying to limit spending and requiring full, clear and immediate disclosure of who's bankrolling campaigns, we'd take disclosure in a heartbeat. People can make educated judgments about barrages of campaign claims when they understand who is behind them.

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