SACRAMENTO -- The barely legible print that briefly flashes
on-screen at the end of political ads will be gone,
replaced by information people can clearly read, if Gov.
Jerry Brown signs a closely watched bill targeting
â€œdark moneyâ€ in
The unions, corporations or billionaires behind the money
would be listed, rather than the obscure committees with
misleading, feel-good names that wrote the checks.
Good-government advocates, including the co-author of the
1974 Political Reform Act, say the DISCLOSE Act would make
California's campaign-advertisement disclosure laws the
toughest in the country.
If the measure is signed into law, said co-author Sen.
Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, voters will know when they see or
hear an ad: â€œWho's paying for this,
whose interests are being supported by it, and who has the
most to gain?â€
But what may sound like a logical step toward more
transparency in Sacramento is nothing less than
revolutionary when politics are involved.
The proposal has been repeatedly floated in the Capitol,
but for years it looked as if it might never pass the
Legislature. Business and labor interests -- the major
underwriters for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle --
have long fought proposed changes. And then there is the
reality that people, lawmakers included, don't like to
regulate themselves, said Jessica Levinson, an election
law, ethics and campaign finance expert at Loyola Law
â€œPeople who win under the current system
tend not to want to alter that system and put more
limitation on themselves,â€ she said.
But citizens organized by the California Clean Money
Campaign flooded the Capitol with calls over the summer
when the bill was stuck in a Senate committee, spurring
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de LeÃ³n to push
it forward, said Trent Lange, the organization's president.
And the bill's author, Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San
Mateo, managed to neutralize the labor opposition with
changes relating to membership dues used in campaigns.
On the floor this month, Mullin urged his colleagues to
prove the naysayers wrong and vote for the bill. They did,
approving it 59-15, with five Assembly Republicans,
including the East Bay's Catharine Baker, signing on. The
Senate had passed it just days earlier, 29-9.
Now the bill is in the hands of the governor, who more than
40 years ago helped to shape California's Political Reform
Act of 1974 as secretary of state in the post-Watergate
era. Brown is not always eager to change the law, which he
knows inside and out. The governor has both signed and
vetoed reform bills in recent years, rejecting proposals he
felt would add complexity without helping solve the
In an interview this week, Mullin said:
â€œI feel pretty bullish the governor will
sign it,â€ calling it â€œa
reform whose time has come.â€
Critics of the bill, including Republican Assemblyman
Matthew Harper, R-Costa Mesa, who voted against it,
complain that it stacks the deck for Democrats by making an
exception for membership dues, helping the labor unions
that fund Democrats' campaigns.
If a member's dues are used to pay for a campaign, the
organization -- not the individual dues-payer -- would
appear as the contributor as long as the total amount is
below $500. Mullin and others argue the change eases the
paperwork burden for membership organizations while making
it easier for the public to follow the money. But
Republicans have cast the provision as union-friendly
politics as usual.
â€œWhat this does is it creates a massive,
dark-money loophole that unions can drive
through,â€ Harper said.
â€œIt's what Democrats do over and over
But Bob Stern, who co-authored the Political Reform Act of
1974 and was the first general counsel for the California
Fair Political Practices Commission, sees it
â€œI think the main thing is to label the
union as the true source,â€ he said.
Stern said he couldn't predict what Brown would do, but
that he supported the legislation. â€œYou
can pick at the bill, obviously, but it is a major step
forward. I think it would become the toughest bill in the
For Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, it is personal.
Last year, he was hit with an attack ad featuring a Los
Angeles schoolteacher convicted years earlier of lewd
The ad was paid for by a political action committee led by
the Palo Alto billionaire Charles Munger Jr., who spent
over $2 million to defeat Muratsuchi over the past two
election cycles. (Muratsuchi lost his re-election bid in
2014, but was elected in 2016.) The ad took aim at
legislation that Muratsuchi had carried on schoolteacher
dismissals and tried to link the lawmaker to the difficulty
of firing teachers such as Mark Berndt, who was sentenced
to 25 years in prison for lewd acts.
The commercial ends, not with Munger's name -- as would be
required under the DISCLOSE Act -- but with the name of his
political action committee: Spirit of Democracy.
â€œIt was easy for voters to be fooled by
the nature of the ads,â€ Muratsuchi said in an
interview this week, â€œbecause who can be
against the spirit of democracy?â€
When it comes to tracing the true source of money, the bill
is tougher on ballot initiatives than on candidate
expenditures. For example: If Chevron or the California
Teachers Association or San Francisco billionaire activist
Tom Steyer give huge sums of money to a political committee
and those funds ultimately pay for a ballot measure ad,
their names will have to appear -- even if their money
passes through three more committees first.
The same â€œfollow-the-moneyâ€
provisions would not apply as extensively to expenditures
for individual candidates -- a concession made to win the
Hill, who has for years tried to help pass various versions
of the legislation, offered a vivid analogy for why the
Legislature is not likely to revisit the issue in the
future: â€œIn politics, it's whose ox is
being gored? And this hits too close to
THE CALIFORNIA DISCLOSE ACT, EXPLAINED
What it would do: Assembly Bill 249, by Assemblyman Kevin
Mullin, D-San Mateo, proposes sweeping changes to
disclosures on campaign ads. It would require the three
largest contributors (of $50,000 or more) to be listed on
ballot measure ads or ads about candidates by outside
A new look: On video and TV, the disclosures must appear
against a solid black background in a clear font that is
not all-caps, fill the bottom third of the screen and stay
up for a full five seconds. Each of the three major funders
'names must appear on a separate line. Disclosures on radio
ads would need to be made with the same speed as the rest
of the ad -- no more speed-talkers.
Print, TV, video, radio, mass mailers, robocalls: The bill,
which Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to sign into law, would
apply to print, online, TV and radio ads as well as mass
mailers and robocalls. Requires radio ads and robocalls to
name the two largest funders.