In the legislative session just ended, state lawmakers gave
speeches and cast votes intended to show they are on the
side of good and open government.
They did, in fact, approve some noteworthy restrictions on
how they do business. But they took a collective walk on
one of the most far-reaching measures of the year, Senate
SB 52 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, sought to help
voters understand who is behind campaigns for and against
ballot measures by requiring that the identities of the
donors be listed clearly on radio and television
Courts increasingly take a dim view on donation
restrictions. But disclosure of donors is the one campaign
finance reform that works to inform the electorate, and so
far has withstood court scrutiny. That makes the
Legislature's failure to expand transparency by approving
SB 52 all the more troubling.
The bill, sponsored by the California Clean Money Campaign,
sought to require disclosure of the first few donors to a
measure. It would apply to the left and right, corporate
and labor. Tobacco giant Philip Morris, oil magnates
Charles and David Koch, San Francisco
billionaire-environmentalist Tom Steyer, Service Employees
International Union and California Teachers Association all
would be identified.
Many opponents had unsheathed their knives ready to kill
the bill. Corporate donors disliked the disclosure
requirement, perhaps not surprisingly. But union lobbyists
and attorneys contended the bill would have imposed
untenable burdens on labor donors, and drove the final
spike into the bill.
With negotiations at an impasse, backers came up with a
compromise that the Fair Political Practices Commission be
charged with responsibility for sorting out who should be
identified as early donors. However, no political
consultant is eager to grant the FPPC greater authority.
The watchdog agency takes pride in being an equal
opportunity regulator, thankfully so.
The bill, which sought to amend California's Political
Reform Act, required a two-thirds vote. The
Democratic-controlled Senate had approved an early version
of it in May.
But in the Assembly, where Democrats hold even greater
majority, the bill failed on Friday, the final night of the
session. It never came up for a vote, a craven way to
Democrats aren't solely to blame. Republicans share in the
shame. GOP leaders used to claim that they oppose campaign
contribution limits and instead support the notion of full
When given the opportunity to put their stated view into
practice by supporting SB 52, they turned their backs, with
one exception. Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, was the only
Republican to vote for the bill. Good for him.