SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A bill aimed at illuminating dark money in political campaigns landed in a key California Senate committee Tuesday, and its author said the legislation is “long overdue.”
Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, wrote Assembly Bill 249 to end the practice of obscuring the names of donors to campaign advertisements. He brought the bill before the Senate Standing Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments, telling members that “unprecedented” spending on campaign advertisements over the last several years has negatively impacted voters and the democratic process.
“AB 249 will fundamentally change how campaign financing is disclosed in California, and it is long overdue,” Mullin said. “The status quo allows donors to hide behind layers of misleading organization names enabling campaigns to conceal their top funders.”
He added that campaigns can bury donor information in fine print that only briefly appears on television ads.
“This makes it nearly impossible for voters to identify the true funders of campaign advertisements,” Mullin said.
If passed and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, AB 249 will be the strongest campaign advertisement finance law in the nation.
Citing recent studies conducted in California, Mullin said transparency in campaign advertisement funding has more than 80 percent support from voters of all political parties, and his measure has garnered more than 90,000 support signatures statewide.
In the past, bills aimed at changing disclosure rules met strong opposition from the California Broadcaster’s Association, which says the efforts restrict donors’ free-speech rights. But the association’s vice president Mark Powers said AB 249 is the first effort his organization has supported in the last two decades.
“This measure takes into account the needs of voters and political advertisers,” Powers said. “Voters will now be able to quickly and accurately assess who is sponsoring the ad with minimal disruption in the ad itself.”
This is not the first bill to advance through the Assembly and go to the state Senate advocating transparency in political ads. Former Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, advanced a similar bill that gathered considerable steam – until Gomez was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the bill was abandoned in committee. Another similar bill also authored by Gomez was defeated on the Senate floor in 2016.
“This is the most important campaign-finance law before the Legislature this year,” Nicolas Heidorn of the citizens’ watchdog group California Common Cause said. “When you know who the messenger is you can more effectively evaluate the message. By removing the veil of anonymity, we force groups to put their brand next to their words, which will help nudge our politics slowly towards the ideals of an open legislature. This is a ‘We the People’ issue.”
Supporters believe AB 249 will discourage negative attack ads and provide accountability to voters, issues some believe are the leading causes of political disconnection in California’s electorate and contribute to low voter turn-out.
“When you are an elected official you vote on a lot of different bills and there are some days when you feel like you can really make a difference, and this is one of those days,” state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, said. “I know there is opposition, but it is hard for me to understand why anyone would oppose knowing just where the money is coming from.”
State Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, voted against the measure. Anderson is the sole Republican on the committee, and in a statement sent Wednesday said, “I support campaign finance laws that support free speech and can be applied to all special interest.”
The bill will – among other requirements – mandate disclosure of the true names of political donors who give more than $50,000 for print, television, radio and electronic advertisements. Additionally, AB 249 requires advertisements to display donors’ names for a minimum length of time, in a legible font and in a size easily readable against a black background occupying no less than one third of the screen or advertisement.
The changes to messaging will be beneficial to candidates as well, since often it is attack ads that make the largest effort to conceal the identity of donors.
“I can’t count the number of times people would get mad at me about a message that was sent by a group I had no control over,” state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, said. “It is a disorienting and almost scary thing to know as a person running for office that there are folks out there out there messaging for or against you, and the vast majority of voters out there have no idea that it is not coming from your campaign. In fact, they assume it is coming from your campaign.”
He added, “There will be no doubt in anyone’s minds.”
Previous attempts to pass measures similar to AB 249 met opposition from the Fair Political Practices Commission, who claimed the efforts would make disclosure even more complicated. The commission’s spokesman Jay Wierenga said by phone the commissioners have not taken a position on AB 249 because staff has not had time to analyze the bill.
The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 21, six days after the end of the legislative session.
AB 249 passed the state Senate’s elections committee and will next be heard in the appropriations committee for fiscal analysis.