SACRAMENTO — A national business group is opening a statewide ad campaign lauding Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his agenda, without disclosing how much it is spending on the commercials or where the money is coming from.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose governing board includes major donors to Schwarzenegger's political campaigns, this week launched a 30-second television spot that coincides with Schwarzenegger's efforts to pass an ambitious public works plan and win a second term.
The ad begins and ends with a picture of Schwarzenegger, contains footage of his State of the State speech in January, and praises his record as governor. "I say build it!" Schwarzenegger exclaims in the commercial.
It is scheduled to air on cable and broadcast television over the next several weeks, with possibly more to come, said chamber official Eric Wohlschlegel.
He would not reveal what the ad campaign costs. Money to pay for it comes from member dues, he said. The chamber does not make public the names of its members.
The ad's purpose is to "promote business in California. That's our chief goal," the chamber spokesman said. "The cost is something we're not going to get into. We're complying with the rules that govern these kinds of issue advocacy programs."
Campaign ethics groups said the chamber is exploiting a legal loophole by airing a "sham issue ad."
Had the ad carried explicit language calling for Schwarzenegger's election, the chamber would be compelled by state law to reveal the cost and details about who gave the money, the ethics groups said.
The watchdog organizations said there is no mistaking the ad's purpose: getting voters to think warmly about Schwarzenegger, support his construction plan and reelect him in November.
"It looks and sounds like a campaign ad to elect Schwarzenegger," said Susan Lerner, executive director of the California Clean Money Campaign based in Los Angeles. "It is indistinguishable from an ad that the Schwarzenegger campaign would put out."
Theis Finlev, policy advocate for California Common Cause, said, "It's ludicrous to suggest this is not a political ad. It's clearly calculated to boost Schwarzenegger's election chances."
The ads are a boon to Schwarzenegger because he and other candidates for governor must adhere to fundraising limits imposed by California law. They may accept individual donations of no more than $22,300. Outside groups such as the chamber are not subject to those limits or to disclosure requirements, as long as they don't expressly call for a candidate's election.
"They are basically supporting his reelection campaign with a limitless amount of money by doing it this way," Lerner said.
The ad opens with the line: "He cut the deficit and helped create 400,000 new jobs." It then lists some of what Schwarzenegger wants to do. Under the heading "Schwarzenegger's California Blueprint," an announcer cites plans for "1,200 miles of new roads, 600 miles of mass transit, 40,000 new classrooms, thousands more modernized, with art, music and vocational ed restored."
The Legislature and Schwarzenegger have been scrambling this week to reach an accord on a public works package, which requires voter approval. Secretary of State Bruce McPherson has set today as the deadline for placing the measure on the June 6 ballot.
Wohlschlegel said the timing of the ad campaign is coincidental: "We've had this in the works for quite some time. The fact that it's hitting now is just good timing."
In California, the state Chamber of Commerce has been among Schwarzenegger's closest allies.
Last year, the governor vetoed seven of eight bills the California chamber had labeled "job killers." Schwarzenegger's chief legislative aide, Richard Costigan, formerly worked at the California chamber.
The U.S. chamber's board includes companies that lobby the governor's office in Sacramento and donors who've given Schwarzenegger's campaigns hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One board member is listed as George Argyros, an Orange County developer who two months ago was a host of a luncheon for Schwarzenegger and other campaign donors in Newport Beach.
Campaign finance records show that Argyros last year gave more than $127,000 to the governor's various campaign accounts.
Another listed board member, Mark T. Bobak, works for Anheuser-Busch, which donated more than $271,000 to Schwarzenegger's campaign accounts in 2003 and 2004.
The drug company Pfizer is also represented on the U.S. chamber's board. Pfizer maintains an active lobbying presence in Sacramento, spending tens of thousands of dollars working for passage or defeat of legislation.
Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign said Thursday that the chamber conceived the ad on its own.