Last week, the California Assembly Appropriations Committee voted AB 1148, the California DISCLOSE Act, to the Assembly floor for a full vote next Tuesday, January 31st. Coming two days before the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision that unleashed unlimited anonymous spending on campaigns across the country, the vote moves forward a bill that would shine a spotlight on political spending so voters know who is behind the ads they’re seeing.
Over $235 million was spent on ballot measures in 2010, almost all of it by veiled actors hiding behind innocuous-sounding names that deliberately mislead voters about who is paying for them. Independent expenditures have increased more than 6,000% since 2000. It will come as no surprise that a recent study by the New York City Public Advocate showed that such anonymous spending groups are significantly more likely to fund negative advertisements.
Assemblymember Julia Brownley, author of AB 1148, said it best when she said that Californians need to know who is paying for political ads when millions of dollars by special interests and wealthy donors are influencing the direction of our state.
Sponsored by the California Clean Money Campaign, AB 1148 will make sure that voters know who is paying for political ads by requiring television, radio, and print ads to clearly identify their three largest funders with their names and logos. These requirements will apply to both ads for or against ballot measures and independent expenditure ads for or against state and local candidates.
The difference in clarity to the voters would be immense. In 2010, the largest-spending ballot measure committees had names like “Californians to Protect Our Right to Vote”, “Stop Hidden Taxes”, “Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates”, “Citizens for an On-Time Budget”, and the ”California Jobs Initiative Committee”. Most voters had no idea who the largest funders of those committees actually were. With AB 1148, they would.
The state’s budget likely would benefit dramatically from this kind of increased disclosure. Much of the state’s budgetary problems are due to legislators being handcuffed by ballot box budgeting and other limitations passed by special interests whose ads don’t reveal who they are. Voters who can make more informed decisions will make better decisions.
These are all part of the reasons why AB 1148 is endorsed by nearly 300 statewide and local organizations and leaders, including the League of Women Voters of California, the California Alliance for Retired Americans, California Common Cause, California Church IMPACT, CALPIRG, the Greenlining Institute, the Green Chamber of Commerce, the Planning and Conservation League, Sierra Club California, and taxpayer advocates like Ted Costa. Two of the three largest cities in the state, Los Angeles and San Jose, just unanimously endorsed AB 1148, and its endorsers include both Democratic and Republican local elected officials.
As an amendment to the Political Reform Act of 1974, AB 1148 will require a 2/3 vote in both the Assembly and State Senate to go into effect, or passage by the voters if the legislature puts it on the ballot by a majority vote.
Though it can be difficult to achieve a 2/3 vote in the legislature, AB 1148 already has substantial support in the legislature. We are particularly excited that Assembly Speaker John Pérez has joined on as a co-author of AB 1148 in the fight for real transparency and disclosure in political advertising – making a total of 34 co-authors in the Assembly. Assembly Appropriations Chair Felipe Fuentes (D-Los Sylmar) and Assemblymembers Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills), Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), Nora Campos (D- San José), Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), Isadore Hall (D-Compton), Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), and Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana) all voted Yes on AB 1148 in the Appropriations Committee.
Most importantly, support for increased disclosure is one of the rare issues in which there is nearly universal public support across the board: 86% of Democrats, 78% of Republicans, and 88% of Independents favored increasing public disclosure requirements of initiatives in the October 13, 2011 California Field Poll.
Disclosure isn’t just an issue that voters say they support but would forget about come election time. As the nearly 300 endorsing organizations and 20,000 people who’ve signed petitions for AB 1148 testify, people across the state are paying attention. And in a January poll commissioned by the Greenlining Institute, 59% of voters said they’d be less likely to vote for an elected official who had voted against improving funder disclosure on political ads.
Of course, AB 1148 has already engendered the kind of opposition you’d expect from organizations representing the biggest special interests in the state who would rather continue being able to hide from voters when they pay for political ads. But with overwhelming bipartisan support from a public that is engaged and cares deeply about transparency and disclosure, we’re hopeful that enough Democrats and Republicans will come together to do the right thing and pass it on Tuesday.
Trent Lange is President of the California Clean Money Campaign, a non-partisan non-profit organization that is the sponsor of the California DISCLOSE Act. For more information on AB 1148, go to http://www.yesfairelections.org/