By Tom Elias
“Give light and the people will find their own way.” – longtime slogan of the now-defunct Scripps Howard Newspapers group.
The essence of that motto, written early in the last century, was a strong belief that if Americans know enough about an issue or politician or political choice, they will act in their own self-interest.
Sadly, this conviction has not been tested much in recent years. The advent of social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provides Americans and others with more information than ever, but much of it is bogus, what President Trump likes to call “fake news.”
Especially since outfits like Scripps Howard and the Knight publishing company disappeared from the landscape, along with many family owned newspapers, there’s less of the reliable, hard news that reporters can gather only by expending shoe leather and persistence.
And since the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s been difficult for anyone to know the true funders of the frequent messages, commercials and other ads conveyed via television, radio, social media and those newspapers that still try to inform the public.
That’s why for much of this decade, the most important proposal before the California Legislature has been a bill known as the Disclose Act, most actively pushed by an organization called the Clean Money Campaign.
As first conceived, this proposed law would require disclosure of the leading funders of all political advertising and ballot initiative petitions in large letters, one version of the idea demanding those names be listed in lettering that matches the largest type used anywhere else in the same advertisement.
This plan has now been broken apart a bit. One part, covering only initiative petitions, passed both the state Senate and a key Assembly committee before the Legislature’s annual midsummer break. This one would force all initiative petitions to carry the names of their three top funders in large letters in a prominent location. It would also not allow big-money interests to hide behind vague committee names like “Californians Against New Taxes” or the like.
But once an initiative makes the ballot, becoming an actual proposition, there would be no more such information. So-called “dark money” contributors could go back into hiding.
But not if another part of the proposal should pass. This bill, carried by former Democratic Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez of East Los Angeles until his summertime election to Congress, would require large-letter donor disclosures in all ads for both candidates and propositions.
While there appear to be few obstacles to eventual passage of the bill covering initiative petitions, the outlook may not be as rosy for its wider-ranging companion.
When Gomez left for Congress, there was temporarily no legislative sponsor for this measure. Only at the last moment did the Senate Rules Committee, led by Democratic Senate President Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, OK a bid by San Mateo’s Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Mullin to be the necessary sponsor.
The fact this non-dispute went on awhile cost the bill precious time, reducing chances passage this summer. It’s true there’s some potential for it to pass this fall or next year, but next year is an election year and labor unions which fund many Democratic campaigns oppose this plan.
So it’s safe to say the real meat of the Disclose Act – prominent disclosure of the largest contributors in all political ads – is not exactly a high priority for de Leon and other legislative leaders, even though he and others nominally support the idea.
Fully 12,000 persons petitioned the Rules Committee to allow Mullin to become the latest Disclose Act sponsor, with 1,500 persons telephoning the committee, too. It will likely take much more support than that to push this idealistic measure through a Legislature still patting itself on the back for extending cap-and-trade environmental tactics to cut greenhouse gases.
Which very likely means yet another election season will go by without a thorough test of that old Scripps Howard motto.