A bill that would have given California voters more insight into the funding of political advertisements in the post-Citizens United era of unlimited spending by shadowy independent groups has failed to pass the state Assembly due to nearly unanimous opposition from GOP legislators.
The California DISCLOSE Act, authored by Santa Monica Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, would have required all political ads to clearly state whether or not they were explicitly endorsed by a candidate ("I'm so-and-so and I approved this message"), list the names and/or corporate logos of the top three funders of the group producing the ad and provide a list of the organization's top five contributors over $10,000.
The legislation would also have required slate mailers to disclose if a candidate or ballot measure paid to be included on the advertisement.
The bill was a mere two votes shy of securing the two-thirds super-majority needed to make it though the Assembly. It had the support of every Democrat in the chamber, save for Stockton's Cathleen Gelgiani. The only Republican to not oppose the bill or abstain from voting on it was Nathan Fletcher of San Diego.
"The public is frustrated and fed up with wealthy donors who manipulate elections through anonymous campaign messages," Julia Brownley said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. "Voters deserve to know clearly who are behind the ads."
Brownly notes that during the 2010 ballot measure campaign, $235 million was spent by independent groups whose opaque funding structures made discovering their backers virtually impossible. Current state disclosure requirements are tighter than at the federal level, but still leave a lot of room for obfuscation. In California, an independent expenditure group is required include in its name something that identifies the interests of its highest donors--although those names are vague enough to be rendered effectively useless.
For example, what does "Californians for Jobs and Education" suggest? Is it large oil and tobacco companies? Because that's who's behind it.
A number of GOP lawmakers argued that the better approach to campaign finance reform would be to eliminate caps on the amount contributors can give directly to candidates, require candidates to immediately report all contributions and allow voters to hold candidates directly responsible for their ads and who is paying for their campaigns.
"Republicans are always for full disclosure," said Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills.
In a blog on The Huffington Post, progressive activist Wendy Block noted that the measure had broad support from the public at large:
Californians support this type of disclosure for ballot measures overwhelmingly. Last October's California Field Poll found that 84 percent of voters favor it, including 78 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of independents, 84 percent of union households, even 83 percent of Tea Party members.
However, the bill was widely opposed by many in the state's business community. In the weeks preceding the vote, the California Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to every Assembly member framing the legislation as an affront to the First Amendment because, "[it] would inhibit protected free speech in the political process by making significant and onerous changes to required disclosures on campaign advertisements and slate mailers."
Despite the bill's failure, its supporters are hopeful that something similar will eventually make it into law.
"The fact that 52 Assembly members voted yes despite intense pressure from special interests that would rather keep the public in the dark shows the power of the grassroots support for real disclosure", Trent Lange, President of the California Clean Money Campaign, told the Auburn Journal. "But we'll be back with an even stronger bill and even greater active involvement from the public for real reform."
Check out this Huffington Post series showing how Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert is, almost single-handedly, bringing the shadowy world of campaign finance to the national stage.
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