If there’s one main reason for the distrust many Californians feel for government and elected officials at all levels, it may be the way special interests regularly pour millions of dollars into election campaigns while managing to mask or obscure their identities.
A major example last year was Proposition 45, voted down by a 59-41 percent margin even though it led by about that same amount in polls taken before the campaign began.
The measure aimed to regulate health insurancepremiums just like car insurance and property coverage prices.It was done in by a $55 million ad campaign whose TV commercials blared in large print that the measure was opposed by the California Medical Assn., the American Nurses Assn. of California and the California Hospital Assn.” The end of the ads also contained fine print and sotto voce statements that they were paid for by Kaiser Permanente, Blue Shield, the parent company of Anthem Blue Cross, and HealthNet.
The result made it clear almost no one got beyond the large print, which was enough to turn around about 1 million voters.
The question: What if the insurance company names had been in large print, present throughout the ad? Would voters then have been more likely to disregard the insurance lobby’s message?
No one knows, but consumer advocates and others who object to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate money into politics think it might have.
Enter the “Disclose Act,” a proposed California law first advanced more than four years ago by then-Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Ventura County, now a Democratic congresswoman. This would require all political ads to show in large letters their top three actual funders, rather than other groups that sometimes have misleading names.
Each year since Brownley first sponsored it, the Disclose Act has come a bit closer to passage, losing only narrowly last year. It will be back again in the new legislative session, even though lawmakers took a slight step in the right direction last spring, separately passing one small Disclose Act portion.
That one now requires disclosure of large donations from nonprofits and other so-called multi-purpose organizations and for the state Fair Political Practices Commission to post on the Internet the names of the top 10 donors to any candidate or initiative campaign.
This measure was a reaction to the influx of $15 million from Arizona-based conservative groups to fight the 2012 Proposition 30 and push for an anti-union measure on the same ballot. Prop. 30, a tax measure, passed anyway has been a lynchpin of Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to balance the state budget.
But the top ten lists are not enough. For the most part, their information was already available to anyone who cared enough to scroll through the California secretary of state’s website and do a little addition. Merely putting the information online also doesn’t mean many voters will see it. How many will take the time and energy to look?
All this makes it high time for the Legislature to do something major about the deception that commonly accompanies huge donations in California politics. Using large print at the start of ads to disclose their key funders, rather than small print at the end, would surely be more effective in warning voters about bias in commercials. Similar rules would also benefit print, radio, Internet and billboard ads.
That’s because the need for transparency allowing voters to peer through the veil of anonymity many campaign donors try to hide behind is more pressing today than ever, thanks to the huge quantities of cash corporations can now employ with little chance of garnering bad publicity.
This makes the Disclose Act the single most important piece of legislation of 2015, for nothing so sullies politics as the way big money is consistently deployed and masked.
Other open government bills will surely be on the new session’s docket, but if this one passes, California voters could become the best informed in the nation. And it if happens here, count on it being imitated widely, just like other California laws from the Proposition 13 tax cuts to the Proposition 15 loosening of marijuana prohibitions.