Transparency Bill Is Murky on Details

California State Capitol [genericsla]
Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

There is new bill in the state legislature designed to expose the role of money on state ballot measures. The problem is that the law, if passed, may raise more questions than provide answers.

Senate Bill 334 introduced by Mark DeSaulnier would require the California Secretary of State to include a list of the five highest contributors of $50,000 or more either for or against a proposed ballot measure 110 days before the election.

The information would then be included in the ballot pamphlet distributed to the voters with the hope that they would become more aware of the money behind efforts to pass or defeat the proposal.

Transparency is the key topic in campaign spending these days. It's become even more important in the wake of the Citizens United decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court a few months ago, which generally allows corporations and unions to spend all they want on campaigns with few constraints. But will DeSaulnier's proposal control the flow of money or provide more transparency? Only on the distant margins.

Let's look at the proposed requirement to name big spenders. Individuals and groups seeking anonymity are famously creative at preserving it. How many times have you seen a campaign ad sponsored by "Citizens to Make California a Better Place" or Californians for Good Government" or something equally vague and without attribution as to who is behind the group.

Nowhere does this legislation keep such ambiguity from the process. Identifying a contributor is only as good as naming the people who give the money, not some meaningless organization.

Second, let's consider the notion of identifying the amounts given by various campaign groups. This sounds good in theory except that the reporting requirement takes place 110 days before the election. Typically, many large campaign contributions appear weeks, sometimes days before an election in a last-minute effort to sway voters who are often confused by ballot proposals to begin with. Such money would continue to come in without scrutiny. Under current law, we don't learn this information until weeks after the election.

The bottom line is that identifying the powers behind campaign issues is much more than meets the eye. If we want to know who's behind something, we need to name the true source, not some clever group created just to funnel money. Likewise, if we want to really follow the money, there must be a way to publish contributions as they come in, especially as the election nears. 

Rather than come up with a misleading law, perhaps it would be better to provide one with teeth. But then again, powerful interests wouldn't want that, would they?

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