Legislature should embrace proposals to reveal political donors 

In 2012, a secretive group out of Arizona made the largest anonymous political donation in recent California history when it funneled $11 million into an effort to defeat Proposition 30, a tax measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The group, Americans for Responsible Leadership, also spent money trying to encourage voters to pass Proposition 32, which would have limited unions’ political fundraising.

The Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s political watchdog, sued the group in court to disclose the identity of the donors behind the spending spree. But winning a court order shed no light on the actual people behind the groups. The main donors of the Arizona group were two other vaguely named nonprofits, Americans for Job Security and the Center to Protect Patient Rights. Those groups are shielded from having to disclose donors because they say they are groups not set up exclusively for political purposes. State law says only groups put together explicitly for political purposes have to disclose donors’ names.

Although the original donor, Americans for Responsible Leadership, violated state law because of its reporting practices, clearly California’s laws need to be changed to force more disclosure of the real donors behind such shadowy groups. Happily, as we enter the new year, several state lawmakers have crafted new proposals that would help give California some of the strictest political spending disclosure rules in the nation.

State Sens. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, introduced a bill that would require any nonprofit donating $100,000 or more to a political campaign in a year’s time to disclose the names of its backers.

This law would close the loophole the U.S. Supreme Court opened with its 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission removing the limit on political spending for such groups. Since then, we have seen the rise of so-called super-PACs, which bypass most election laws requiring that donors’ names be revealed by giving money to political causes, but not campaigns.

Meanwhile, Sens. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, want to broaden disclosure  through clearer political advertising. Their bill would require that the top three donors to any campaign be named in political advertisements and on the websites of campaigns. In a similar vein, Sen. Louis Correa, D-Santa Ana, wants the font size on political ads to be increased.

Other proposed legislation would increase the disclosure rules for last-minute political spending and  give more teeth to the Fair Political Practices Commission to compel the disclosure of donors to nonprofits.

Most of these proposals would be changes to the 1974 Political Reform Act. The threshold for changing that law is a two-thirds vote of lawmakers. Democrats in both houses of the Legislature now possess such a supermajority, but it will not last forever as lawmakers leave for other posts and special elections loom. And the supermajority is of course dependent upon a united party in both chambers, and not all California Democrats wear the same blue suit.

Still, California lawmakers have the chance this year to approve some of the strictest political spending disclosure rules in the entire nation, which could set the groundwork for better federal laws. The best outcome would be for Democrats to unite in the understanding that secret money is destructive to democracy. The worst outcome would be that secret money gets to those lawmakers before they vote and derails these proposals. We can only hope for the former.

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