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Beyond Bruin Walk: California legislators must create campaign finance laws that ensure disclosure

(Emily Dembinski/Illustrations director)

By Sabrina Huang and Jake Brophy

Nov. 4, 2020 12:50 a.m.

This post was updated Nov. 8 at 7:29 p.m.

Transparency is a vital part of democracy – and nowhere is transparency more important than in a candidate’s financial backing.

Unless, of course, you’re a California legislator.

California’s campaign finance laws set limits on the total contributions a donor can contribute to a candidate. Currently, an individual, business or political action committee can spend a maximum of $4,700 on state Senate and Assembly candidates’ campaigns and only $31,000 on gubernatorial campaigns.

But direct donations are just the tip of the iceberg. Both donors and candidates can stow away millions in obscure places with virtually no oversight from the state.

And the public won’t know any better.

Money has long been a politician’s game, but the pervasive backdoors available to candidates demonstrate that it’s time for a change. California must put an end to debilitating loopholes that allow special interest groups and candidates alike to spend money without any accountability.

But let’s face it: Politicians will always have reason to reject legislation that may hinder their efforts to get reelected. Rather than rely on these individuals to create slanted laws, the state should give greater oversight power to the Fair Political Practices Commission – an independent body tasked with interpreting and enforcing fair contribution rules. Only then can campaign finance laws hold politicians and donors accountable.

One of the most glaring problems rests in the unchecked power of independent expenditure committees. These groups advocate for or against a candidate, but are not associated with the individual’s campaign. Because the federal government doesn’t recognize independent expenditures as contributions, donors are free to spend as much money as they want.

2020 has made it abundantly clear how problematic that is: Independent expenditure committees have spent over $31 million on state Senate and Assembly races.

That being said, California has worked to limit the obscurity of campaign funds – just not the relative impunity with which independent expenditure committees can act. Voters passed the Political Reform Act in the form of Proposition 9 in 1974 to establish monetary caps on contributions to state races. In 2017, the state Legislature passed the Disclose Act which mandates independent expenditure committees to clearly list the top three contributors on all advertisements, literature and electronic mailing.

The problem is, the bill describes “top contributor” as entities that contribute at least $50,000. This means donors who shell out $45,000 or even $49,999.99 are not listed on political advertisements.

It should come as little surprise then that they’ve already taken advantage of this.

In March, CalMatters reported the most prominent independent expenditure committee supporting state Assembly candidate Sylvia Rubio did not report any of its top contributors on its advertisements. The committee’s two primary donors contributed $49,500 and $45,000 respectively.

Knowing who’s spending big money in state races won’t stop donors from making hefty contributions. But it can inform voters what groups are behind the advertisements they’re watching – and why.

After all, some candidates may not be willing to announce who’s indirectly supporting their bids for office. State Senate candidate Dave Min hasn’t shied away from publicizing the endorsement he earned from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has plans to close two state prisons. But Min doesn’t seem too eager to announce that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association spent nearly $1.5 million to support his campaign and lambast his opponent’s.

Voters won’t know this unless they do their own research, something many may not have the time or resources to do.

But independent expenditure committees aren’t the only problem with the state’s campaign finance laws.

Donors can also give money to candidate-controlled ballot committees that are designed to lobby for or against a particular proposition. Although these entities are legally under the power of former or future state politicians, there are no contribution caps.

In theory, these groups are meant to spend money on ballot propositions, but in practice, the rules lack clarity, allowing donations to be used for things like travel or hiring political consultants.

The result is that candidates have access to a bottomless pool of money that bypasses state candidate contribution laws.

So much for reducing the influence of money in politics.

This is where the FPPC can and should step in. The commission already adopts finance regulations; giving it the power to close legislative loopholes so it can expand oversight of campaign contributions doesn’t seem like a far stretch.

That being said, political contributions are a gray area when it comes to government intervention. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporate donations independent of candidates and their campaigns are protected by free speech. Thus, limits on contributions – even if they are from multibillion dollar entities – are unconstitutional.

If the state has its hands tied in that regard, the least it could do is let voters know who’s spinning the tales they’re hearing day in and day out.

Because if they don’t, transparency will be nothing more than a pipe dream.

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Sabrina Huang | Assistant Opinion editor
Huang is an assistant Opinion editor for the 2020-21 school year. She was previously an Opinion columnist and an occasional PRIME contributor. She is a second-year public affairs student from Orange County, California.
Huang is an assistant Opinion editor for the 2020-21 school year. She was previously an Opinion columnist and an occasional PRIME contributor. She is a second-year public affairs student from Orange County, California.
Jake Brophy | Assistant Opinion editor
Brophy is the 2020-2021 assistant opinion editor. He was previously an opinion columnist for the 2019-2020 school year. He is also a third year political science major.
Brophy is the 2020-2021 assistant opinion editor. He was previously an opinion columnist for the 2019-2020 school year. He is also a third year political science major.
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