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Would A Transparency Bill Allow More Opaque Campaign Cash?


New requirements for campaign ads on TV could pass the California Legislature this week, after six years of attempts by open government advocates. But a state elections watchdog says it’s been compromised, and would actually make it easier for special interests to hide money.

Ads in California have to list the committee that paid for them and also the top two donors behind those committees. Often, that’s more generically-patriotic-sounding committees.

Legislation proponents have dubbed the California DISCLOSE Act would require campaigns to report who money for an ad originally came from—both to the state and on-air.

For instance: A donor gives money to a labor union, intending for the union to contribute the funding to a ballot committee--which then funds an ad. The union would have to report the contribution as "earmarked" for the ad. And, if the donor is one of the ad's top two funders, his or her name would appear on the ad.

The legislation would be first-of-its-kind in the U.S.

The Fair Political Practices Commission already disliked the law’s wording, but commission chair Jodi Remke says amendments quietly inserted earlier this month cripple the measure's intent.

"To me, it appeared that the bill had been hijacked by undisclosed special interest, that clearly are seeking to narrow our existing law, and weaken the strength of those laws," says Remke.

The bill's author and supporters acknowledge they acquiesced to changes from interest groups, particularly labor unions.

The amendments seem technical, in some cases inserting just a word. For instance, a donor would have to “expressly” indicate his funds should go to a specific campaign to be listed. Remke says that’s almost impossible to prove.

Another provision allows membership organizations (Remke says the act does not define that term) to accept contributions up to $7,000 without reporting if it has been earmarked.

Open government groups remained behind the bill, while acknowledging the amendments.

"The bill was an even better bill," says Trent Lange of California Clean Money says. "There were some things that we would rather not have had changed that did narrow somethings from what it was before, but not—and this is very important—compared to current law."

Lange says the bill still requires new disclosures for TV ads, and he argues the narrower language only applies to ones the state currently does not require at all.

Ultimately, the dispute would likely be settled in court, when then state does--or doesn't--try to implement the new rules.

The legislation could come up for a vote in the state Senate as early as Tuesday.