By Derek Fleming, Courthouse News
SACRAMENTO (CN) – Efforts to illuminate “dark money” in politics took a step forward Wednesday, as California lawmakers brokered a deal to move a disclosure bill to the state Senate next week.
Assembly Bill 249 – the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections, or DISCLOSE, Act – would require disclosure of who pays for political ads and reign in the influence gained by so-called Super PACs following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.
If passed, the bill will be the first of its kind in the United States.
By requiring campaign ads aired on the radio, television and seen in printed mailers and electronic ads to disclose the true names of donors, the bill would provide a greater level of transparency for California voters, backers say.
Assembly Speaker pro tempore Kevin Mullen, D-South San Francisco, took over the bill after its author, former Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The bill has massive grassroots backing, with some polls finding between 80 and 85 percent voter support regardless of party affiliation according to Trent Lange, president of California Clean Money Campaign.
“I firmly believe we are about to make a little bit of history,” Mullen told activists rallying support at the State Capitol Wednesday. “For the first time, it appears we have a deal to move a real reform bill to the governor. Let me tell you, the moment is finally at hand.”
Similar measures have come within one vote of passage as recently as 2016. The bill requires a two-thirds majority to pass, which Democrats currently cling to.
A recall effort being waged against an Orange County Democrat could, if successful, eliminate the current super-majority the party holds in the Assembly and throw the bill – and dozens of others – into jeopardy.
The Assembly approved the bill in April on a 71-0 vote, with several Republicans abstaining.
If passed by the state Senate, AB 249 will head to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.
By requiring campaign ads aired on the radio, television and seen in printed mailers and electronic ads to disclose the true names of donors, backers hope to provide a greater level of transparency for California voters.
“In recent years, California has seen campaign spending on ballot measures reach unprecedented levels,” Mullen told a cheering crowd. “Donors currently hide behind layers of misleading names and campaigns are able to conceal their top funders. Transparency is critical for our democracy, and this includes transparency for the money spent on statewide campaigns. There is going to be no more fine print on those campaign ads in California.”
State Senate President pro tem Kevin De Leon told the crowd that the situation in Washington is unlike anything we have faced before, and that the need for transparency is great.
“These are incredible times, unlike anything we have faced before. Richard Nixon is a choirboy in comparison to what is happening today in Washington today,” De Leon said. “More than ever, that is why we need to bring light and disinfect this toxic, polluted money that is hiding in the shadows and bring it to the light.”
State Sen. David Chiu, D-San Francisco, believes AB 249 is necessary to help re-engage Californians in the political process. He said voters no longer trust the system because of undisclosed donors and manipulative campaigns.
“We are all here together because, not only are we tired of dark money. We are disillusioned because of all this dark money, because of the lack of transparency, because of the lack of disclosure,” Chiu said.
Chiu told supporters the bill was necessary because of the election of President Donald Trump and victories by Republicans across the nation.
“Last November was really, really bad for America, and it was bad because we had thought there was going to come a brighter day when it comes to transparency in government. I think many of us believe that had we had a different outcome last November, we would be having a conversation about a better Supreme Court that would overturn Citizens United,” Chiu said.
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, believes AB 249 will provide information to educate voters.
“If your cause is righteous, you shouldn’t be afraid of sunshine,” Friedman said. “If you have the truth behind you and you have the right behind you and you have the good of the people behind your cause, you shouldn’t be afraid to show who is backing your cause. As legislators, we should not be afraid of sunshine. We shouldn’t be afraid of truth and we shouldn’t be afraid of transparency. Large interests are afraid of this bill.”
Christine Pelosi, chair of the Democratic Party Women’s Caucus and daughter of U.S Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said dark money inhibits political opportunities for women.
“We know the disparate impact dark money has on women candidates,” Pelosi said. “We all know what happens, not enough men give to women and not enough women vote for women. When a woman decides to run for office, they say, ‘She can’t keep me safe, she can’t manage my money and she will be too emotional in her work.’ Here is a fact: It is the secret, dark money behind which people can attack progressives and women candidates and make up all sorts of unaccountable lies.”
Pelosi said she believes disclosing the source of funding for advertisements will bring accountability to campaign funding.
The measure will be heard in the Senate Elections Committee next week, where state Sen. Henry Stern has said he will do all he can to move it forward.