If there's one dominant reason for the distrust many
Californians feel for governments at all levels, it's the
sense that special interests regularly pour millions of
dollars into federal, state and local election campaigns
while contriving to hide their identities.
That reality makes SB 52, the so-called DISCLOSE Act
sponsored by Democratic state Sens. Mark Leno of San
Francisco and Jerry Hill of San Mateo County, the single
most important measure state lawmakers will consider this
Yes, they'll face other big and contentious issues. Gov.
Jerry Brown's budget bills will get plenty of attention
from the public and the Legislature before this month is
out. So will plans for two massive tunnels to carry
Sacramento River water south. No one will ignore the debate
about how to divvy up new tax money from last year's
Proposition 30 among public school districts.
Each of these deserves all the attention it can get. But
none will deal with the most basic issue standing between
citizens and the politicians they elect, the same issue
that makes voters distrust many ballot proposition
The problem is money, which the most formidable state
Assembly speaker ever, Jesse Unruh, famously called "the
mother's milk of politics."
Money has poured into politics in unprecedented quantities
since the U.S. Supreme Court's notorious Citizens United
decision, the one declaring corporations the equivalent of
human beings, giving them the right to donate limitless
amounts to political campaigns so long as those campaigns
are not controlled directly by candidates.
This led to so-called independent expenditure committees,
which run ads that at the very least often dovetail with
those of the candidates they back and hide the identities
of outfits that actually put up the money.
There is no federal initiative process, so Citizens United
can't be reversed by the people. It would take years to
pass a constitutional amendment overturning this, and there
is no serious move afoot now for such an amendment.
Which means anyone worried about honesty in elections,
anyone interested in knowing which candidates are beholden
to whom or what persons or companies are behind any
particular ballot proposition, needs an antidote of a
The most effective vaccine against political lies and
obfuscation is knowledge of who's paying the piper, because
that person or company will usually also call the tunes to
which candidates dance.
Enter the DISCLOSE Act. Sponsored last year by
former Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Ventura
County, now in Congress, this measure would force every
political TV commercial in California to disclose its three
largest funders prominently for six seconds at the start of
the ads, rather than using small print at the end. Similar
rules would apply to print ads, radio spots, mass mailers,
billboards and websites. Ads would also have to list a
website that shows their 10 largest donors and links to all
contributors of $10,000 or more.
Doing this could end many subterfuges in politics,
including items like last year's last-minute dumping of
millions of dollars into California ballot proposition
campaigns by out-of-state groups with vague names and
anonymous donors. There would be no more point for tobacco
companies opposed to local anti-smoking regulations, for
one example, to call their committee "Californians for
Statewide Smoking Regulations," when it's really out to
kill such laws. For the companies themselves would be named
in white-on-black lettering in good-sized fonts.
This measure passed the Assembly last year, but time ran
out before the Senate considered it. So it's back for
another try, and because it would revise and enhance the
1974 Political Reform Act, passed by voters as an
initiative, it needs two-thirds majorities in both the
Assembly and state Senate.
Good as SB 52 sounds, it's not quite a match for a failed
measure put forward almost 10 years ago that would have
required much the same information, but would also have
demanded that it be displayed in type matching the largest
size anywhere else in the ad.
Other open-government bills are making their way through
the Legislature this year, but if this one passes,
California voters could quickly become the best informed in
the nation. And, like many other trends from medical
marijuana to lower property taxes, if it happens in
California, you can count on it happening in other states
But only if it gets two-thirds votes in both houses of the
Legislature, no sure thing when many members themselves
depend on obfuscated, big donors.
Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aolcom. For more Elias
columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.