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COURSEY: Small steps toward campaign transparency

Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.

Democrats now enjoy two-thirds “supermajorities” in both houses of the California Legislature, and since the November election they've been inundated with warnings against “overreaching” and abusing that power.

It's good advice. But while those who have great power must show restraint, they also need to know when to wield it wisely. Here's something worthwhile they can do not just for their own party, but for every California voter.

Change the state's campaign finance rules.

Politicians and pundits love to decry the corrosive effects of money in politics. But recent efforts to make campaign financing more transparent to the voting public have bumped up against the requirement for a two-thirds majority in the state Legislature. Last year, two attempts to pass what's known as the California DISCLOSE Act fell just a couple of votes short in the Assembly. Almost all of the “no” votes came from Republicans.

Now, Democrats have the votes to get it passed.

The law, now Senate Bill 52 introduced by Sens. Mark Leno and Jerry Hill, is not earthshaking. It doesn't keep rich donors from pumping cash into the pockets of their favorite politicians or pet causes. All it does is require campaign advertising — broadcast, print, online — to prominently include the names of its top three funding sources.

It's hard to believe that a law so simple would have such a hard time getting through the state Legislature. But when you realize that many of those legislators at some point in their political careers have benefited from anonymous or deceptive donations, and stand to do so again in some future campaign, you might understand a reluctance to tighten up the rules.

If they don't do it now, though, the fault will belong to the Democrats. They have the power to get this through, and they should do it.

And more.

Last year, California's political class went into a tizzy after an anonymous Arizona group poured $11 million into campaigns aimed at killing Gov. Jerry Brown's tax package and at passing a ballot initiative to curb the political power of unions.

But when the state sued to find out the source of the money, it was discovered that two nonprofit groups behind the funding were covered by federal laws that allowed their donors to remain anonymous.

Senate Bill 3, by Sens. Leland Yee and Ted Lieu, would require nonprofit groups that give at least $100,000 to a political campaign to release the names of their donors. It also requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Yee promoted his bill with a statement that is as American as apple pie: “Our democracy should not be bought and sold in shady backroom deals.”

Unfortunately, neither of these bills will keep that from occurring. But each would shine another small sliver of sunlight into the shady world of campaign financing. And a step in the right direction is better than no step at all.

Democrats in Sacramento now have the power to do it. Let's hope they also have the will.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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