Editorial

Voters deserve to know who's bankrolling shadowy political campaigns

A typical political ad for a ballot measure in California might include something like this: “Paid for by Yes on Proposition 99 — Good Jobs and Safe Streets, with major funding by People for Good Jobs and Safe Streets.”

This meets the legal requirement of disclosure under current rules, but it doesn’t give voters any help at all identifying the real people, organizations and industries propping up this fictional initiative. In fact, it may even be misleading. And in this post-Citizens United world, where campaign spending has soared, clear disclosure of who is funding measures and candidates is more important than ever.

Granted, California’s campaign finance filings can help voters track down the people and organizations spending on campaigns. But most voters don’t have the time or inclination to vet every political ad they see. That’s why it makes sense to update the requirements for disclosure as proposed by AB 249, which would require that the top three funders of ads supporting or opposing a ballot measure be identified transparently and prominently in the ad. The same would apply to ads about a candidate, if the ads weren’t paid for by the candidate or a political party. The bill would put California at the forefront of campaign finance disclosure.

Vaguely named campaign committees exist to obscure the role of special interests. Here’s just one example: Proposition 37 in 2012 would have required the labeling of food products containing genetically modified organisms. The main opponent to the measure was something called the “Coalition against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition,” which spent $44 million on political ads to defeat to measure. The top donor to that coalition was Monsanto, an agribusiness company and the biggest supplier of GMO seeds. Other donors included Dupont, Pepsico and a host of food and beverage companies that would have been forced to change their labels. The top opponents might not have been a surprise in this case, but they weren’t obvious, and they should have been.

The bill is now awaiting action by Gov. Jerry Brown. And although it passed with bipartisan support in the Legislature and is supported by prominent good-government groups, including the California Clean Money Campaign, California Common Cause, League of Women Voters of California and Maplight, the governor’s appointed chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, Jodi Remke, has voiced concern that the bill might make it harder to stop special interests from circumventing contribution limits. Other campaign experts disagree with her assessment, however. And in any case, the potential problem she identified is minor in comparison to California taking the lead in shining a light on dark money.

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