Commentary

03/14/2013  by Ed Coghlan

Transparency in California treading toward more openness?


Sunshine Week has been a catalyst behind the case for more transparent state elections. (Photo Credit: Matthew Grant Anson)

Good government groups are using Sunshine Week to make the case for more transparent California state elections. And bills promoting more transparency are in the hopper in Sacramento.

The California League of Women Voters and Common Cause are sponsoring the Sunshine in Campaigns Act, a package of bills designed to bring more light to who is really contributing to elections and to show where the  money to support candidates and initiatives is really coming from.

“Our disclosure laws aren’t as strong as they need to be,” said Helen Hutchison of the California League of Women Voters. “We need to make it easier for Californians to understand who the real donors to these campaigns are.”

This issue reared its head last November when what the L.A. Times described as an obscure non-profit called Americans for Responsible Leadership attempted to funnel $11 million dollars into California to fight Governor Brown’s tax hike plan, Prop. 30, and support another ballot measure (Prop 32) which was designed to limit the political influence of organized labor.

Common Cause spotted the Arizona-based organization's irregularly large, out-of-state donation and filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). Litigation initiated by the FPPC helped figured out the two non-profit intermediaries who effectively had the ARL launder their donation before Election Day, but the identity of the original donors is still not known.

“The Legislature is interested in doing something,” said Hutchison, ”so we are taking the opportunity to encourage people to support the bills.”

The League and Common Cause are using this week’s observation of Sunshine Week as an opportunity to push for support of the three bills. There are three bills all dealing with campaign disclosure, (SB 2 by Senator Lieu, SB 3 by Senator Yee and SB 26 by Senator Correa---you can read more about them here).

"This package of legislation will dramatically reform how campaign funds and activities are disclosed in future elections," said Phillip Ung, Policy Advocate for California Common Cause. "These measures will be California's first response to the Citizen United Decision handed by the Supreme Court that has opened up the floodgates for dark and anonymous money in politics."

The bills cover three main areas, faster election filings and disclosure so you can know before the election who is supporting candidates and initiatives, ending the “dark money” loophole that was exploited last November by the Arizona group and making penalties stronger and more enforceable.

“The voters need to know who funds their campaigns,” added Hutchison. “We believe the legislation promotes transparency by making candidates stand by their ads, increasing the timeliness of disclosure in the state and increasing penalties for those who skirt the intent of the law.”

The League of Women Voters and Common Cause have been doing interviews, writing guest columns for newspapers and sending letters to the editor to promote the legislation.

Earlier this week, California Forward issued its State of Transparency for 2013. The analysis was developed by an advisory group whose members include representatives from government, journalism, academia and the law. It explores the core issues of governmental accountability and transparency in the Golden State. The analysis aims to accentuate and help advance the conversation about how improved transparency can lead to better government.

The analysis also explores the core issues of governmental accountability and transparency in the Golden State. The analysis aims to accentuate and help advance the conversation about how improved transparency can lead to better government.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story implied that California Common Cause was the sole actor in revealing the path of the $11 milion donation through Americans for Respnsible Leadership. It has been amended to reflect the FPPC's pivotal role in initiating litigation against ARL based on Common Cause's complaint filing.

Categories: Governance Reform

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