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Political Road Map: Don't miss the fine print in this big California campaign disclosure bill

You wouldn’t expect to see the leader of California’s campaign watchdog agency rooting for Gov. Jerry Brown to veto sweeping new disclosure rules for political donors. And yet, that’s where things stand in a seven-year debate over helping voters follow the money.

“I think we can do better than this bill,” said Jodi Remke, chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Remke and her staff have raised a red flag about the fine print tucked inside Assembly Bill 249, the “California Disclose Act,” that rewrites rules for campaign contributions that are “earmarked.”

Here’s how the system works now: An organization like a labor union cajoles each of its 1,000 members to give $400 to a state Senate candidate. That effort to infuse $400,000 in cash — almost 100 times above the maximum single contribution — must be disclosed, with the union identified as the middleman.

AB 249 would add several new layers, and some exclusions, to what’s considered a reportable “earmarked” contribution. And that’s what worries the FPPC’s attorneys.

“It’s narrowing the circumstances where we can track earmarking,” Remke said during a public hearing last week.

Disclosure can be vital to stopping any powerful group — labor, business, secretive nonprofit organizations — from quietly circumventing contribution limits by divvying up cash into bite-size, innocuous amounts.

Commissioners spent hours last Thursday hearing from citizens who traveled to Sacramento praising AB 249’s mandate for clear and concise donor information to be displayed in campaign advertisements. The bill’s backers say it will go a long ways toward helping voters puzzled by who’s behind political action committees with generic, feel-good names. “Californians for Sunshine,” after all, wouldn’t tell anyone what’s really at stake.

But it’s some of the same powerful political players being regulated who were instrumental in drafting the bill’s language — a fact made clear in an April 7 letter to an Assembly committee considering an early version of the bill.

Labor “acquiesced” to more advertising disclosure during 2016 negotiations, wrote Dave Low of the California School Employees Assn., “in exchange for new and clear language as to what constituted an earmarked contribution.” The letter says unions wanted the rules governing earmarked donations “narrowly drafted” to “effectively protect labor from any allegations that it was ‘laundering’ contributions from its members” when eventually weighing in with help “for a specific candidate.”

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The bitterly divided campaign finance commission, still under siege after summertime allegations that one of its commissioners was too cozy with Democratic Party lawyers, deadlocked on AB 249 last week. The bill’s activist champion believes the FPPC report makes much ado about nothing.

“It misses several important aspects of the bill,” said Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign.

He argues the earmarking provisions simply eliminate a burdensome focus on an organization’s “individual members, who nobody cares about” and will help voters keep their eye on the big groups who make decisions about where money is spent.

“All disclosure is about getting at who are the real funders of this money,” Lange said. He also touts the bill’s provisions that make new earmarking rules apply to ballot measure donations.

But ballot measure cash isn’t subject to contribution limits, and those rules would be mostly about public awareness. For candidate committees, though, AB 249 could change who’s guilty of breaking the law. It would apply to local campaigns, too, where donor limits are as low as $100 and earmarking could have a much larger impact.

There’s no hint yet of what Brown will do, and he has until Oct. 15 to act. The key question may be whether he views the bill’s earmarking details — rarely mentioned in most news coverage — as reasonable or risky.

john.myers@latimes.com

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