Most attention given putative new laws passed in the waning moments of this year’s legislative session in Sacramento has gone to items like a “sanctuary state” compromise making California safer for non-criminal undocumented immigrants and measures to move the state’s next presidential primary up into early March.
But the one bill with the most potential to improve this state’s politics is the long-sought “Disclose Act,” which — if Gov. Brown signs it before an Oct. 15 deadline — could do more than any modern measure to clean up California’s money-dominated initiative process.
This bill “will fundamentally change how campaign financing is disclosed,” said its latest sponsor, Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, the No. 2-ranking Democrat in the Legislature’s lower house.
It just might do that. The bill requires ads for ballot propositions and independent expenditure ads for and against candidates to identify their top three funders, with no one able to hide behind phony names like “Californians for Purity,” or anything of that sort. The idea is to identify people and organizations actually trying to exert influence, possibly causing some to downsize their contributions if they don’t want to be exposed as leading donors.
If Brown signs it, this will let voters know exactly who is trying to influence their decisions. From the “who,” it’s usually only a short distance to discern the “why,” which could then see voters cast their most educated ballots ever. In short, this proposed law could make California politics not only more transparent than ever before, but also might go far toward cleaning up the state’s special-interest-driven politics.
Voters will know, for example, when industrialist Eli Broad, who has financed many charter school backers in local elections, is at work. They’ll also know when teachers unions — which often oppose charter schools — are the biggest supporters of candidates aiming to feather the nests of their members.
Brown has long claimed to favor transparency in politics and government, but has not always acted accordingly. Yes, he helped write the state’s Political Reform Act, passed as an initiative in 1974 while he ran for governor for the first time. That measure not only created the Fair Political Practices Commission, which polices campaign spending, but also imposed spending limits (later tossed by the courts), restricted what lobbyists can give to officials and banned anonymous campaign donations of more than $100.
But lately Brown has been secretive about some of his communications with state officials on utility rate cases and other big-money issues. With only about a year left in office, if he wants to be remembered as a good-government advocate, rather than a transparency obstacle, he must sign the Disclose Act. Unlike his handling of the sanctuary state bill, Brown has not yet indicated whether he’ll sign or veto this one. His decision here will reveal a lot about his true priorities — whether he favors voters and consumers or the big donors who often want anonymity.
It’s true the measure could have been better than it is. It could have demanded that disclosures of donors be made in print equal in size to the largest anywhere else in an ad. Instead, the meaning of the vague words “clearly and prominently,” will no doubt be litigated for years if Brown signs.
Similarly, the original goals of this plan were to expose the largest contributors to candidates. That went by the boards during the legislative process, but plenty of major improvements remain.
What’s more, legislative passage of the Disclose Act was pretty bipartisan, with every Assembly Democrat who voted saying yes and five Republicans from swing districts joining them.
Said Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, who has pushed the Disclose Act for almost a decade, “We’ve never been closer, anywhere in the country, to shining a light on dark money by making it illegal for voters to be misled about who is truly paying for ballot measure ads.”
It’s up to Brown now, and what he does on arguably the most important bill to pass the Legislature in years will go a long way toward defining how he’ll be remembered.
Thomas D. Elias is a writer in Southern California. firstname.lastname@example.org