California Tries to Shine a Little Light on Political “Dark Money”

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 and unleashed unlimited money in political campaigns, the prescription for keeping the electoral process healthy was supposed to be transparency through financial disclosure.

That didn’t happen. It was a judicial wink and a nod that disguised a takeover of electoral funding by billionaires and other moneyed interests who contributed untraceable cash to issues, candidates and campaigns.

Last week, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) toughened up its “Top 10 Contributors” (pdf) regulation that requires nonprofit groups to reveal who funds them. In the past, those contributors could have generic names like “The Committee to Reform Reformers,” but now they have to name the two humans who contributed the most to that group.

The Top 10 list was created in 2014, partially in response to a last-minute effort to pump $15 million into two California campaigns in the November 2012 election. Arizona money from the billionaire Koch brothers was traced through five ambiguous sounding groups before landing in the hands of people who targeted Governor Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 tax hike for defeat and supported the anti-union Proposition 32.  

The Los Angeles Times reported that after the FPPC voted to approve the rule change, Chairwoman Jodi Remke said, “It is significant that dark money will not be coming into California.”

That might be a bit of an overstatement. But an initiative proposal, submitted to the California Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday for title and summary before circulation among registered voters, endeavors to plug some gaps while adding a few other good-government wrinkles.

The Voters Right to Know Act (pdf) would require disclosure of anyone whose contribution of $10,000 or more ends up in a political effort. It would pretty much prevent lobbyists and their employers from giving gifts worth anything to public officials and reduce the maximum value of gifts an individual can give to an official each year from $460 to $200.

The initiative also enshrines in the state Constitution that “money used to fund campaign activity and to influence governmental action be disclosed publicly so that people may make informed electoral choices and ensure government is acting in their interests.” Supporters hope it would help the cause should the U.S. Supreme Court entertain challenges to Citizens United.

Bob Stern, the FPPC’s first general consul and member of the group pushing the initiative, told the Sacramento Bee, “In my view, this initiative probably is the most significant since the Political Reform Act of 1974,” which he helped write.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Initiative Would Require More Campaign Finance Disclosure (by Christopher Cadelago, Sacramento Bee)

State Panel Outlaws “Dark Money” in California Political Campaigns (by Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

Much-Ballyhooed Political Penalties Probably Won't be Collected (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

FPPC Moves to Increase Disclosure of Top Donors and Stop Dark Money (California Fair Political Practices Commission)

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