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Bill on anonymous political donations faces a test in state Senate

The legislation, which would require greater disclosure about individuals who fund groups, can pass only if at least one Republican supports it.

March 16, 2014|By Patrick McGreevy and Melanie Mason
  • A web of organizations tied to conservative billionaires David Koch and his brother poured $15 million into California in 2012 to fight Gov. Jerry Brown's tax hike and support an ultimately unsuccessful move to curtail unions' political power.
A web of organizations tied to conservative billionaires David Koch and… (Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — An attempt by California lawmakers to curb anonymous political donations, sometimes hidden behind secretive out-of-state groups, will test Democrats' ability to have their way without a supermajority.

Dark money, as such contributions are known, roiled California's 2012 election when a web of organizations tied to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch poured $15 million into the state to fight Gov. Jerry Brown's tax hike and support an ultimately unsuccessful move to curtail unions' political power.

Legislation that would require greater disclosure about individuals who fund the various groups is expected to go before the state Senate on Monday, having already passed the Assembly. It can be approved only if Democrats win the vote of at least one of the Senate's 11 Republicans.

"This is about transparency," said Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), voicing disappointment that his bill was hanging in the balance. "It's not a Democratic or Republican issue…. People want to know who is giving money to whom."

Democrats held two-thirds majorities in both chambers until recently, enabling them to pass many kinds of legislation without Republican votes. Then Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) took a leave of absence to fight criminal charges, leaving the party one seat shy of a supermajority in the Senate.

Not a single GOP senator supported a similar bill last year, and last week Republicans were noncommittal about the measure.

"It's in my briefcase, and I am going to be perusing it this weekend," said Republican Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford.

Senate Republican leader Robert Huff (R-Diamond Bar) said he was "not a big fan" of the proposal, worrying that people who donate anonymously to nonprofits for nonpolitical reasons could be unfairly exposed.

Efforts to expand or restrict disclosure of the sources of campaign money have been political flash points for years. The issue was inflamed, in part, by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that eased limits on political spending by independent groups.

Under existing California law, an organization such as a nonprofit group is not necessarily required to reveal the identities of its donors if it has never spent money in a state election before.

Correa's bill would require an organization to provide information about its donors if it spends or contributes at least $50,000 in one year or more than $100,000 in four consecutive years.

The measure also would require committees on ballot measures, if they raise at least $1 million, to maintain a public list of the top 10 contributors who gave $10,000 or more.

Supporters argue that voters need as much information as possible about who is seeking to influence elections. Opponents of more disclosure say such transparency could chill free speech.

"These laws are being passed in order to scare people out of contributing to organizations that engage in political activity," said James Bopp Jr., an Indiana attorney who has been a leader in challenging campaign finance restrictions.

Correa said the bill simply addresses a need for sunlight on the political process.

"This is a very straightforward bill," the lawmaker said. "Just let people know what you are spending the money on. Let the people know who you are contributing to."

The legislation would take effect July 1. If it does not pass Monday, Correa, who wants the measure to apply to the November election, could try again before the Legislature adjourns at the end of August. Or he could amend the bill to incorporate Republican demands that it not take effect until Jan. 1, 2015, in hopes of drawing GOP votes.

The measure, SB 27, came in response to a controversy over $15 million funneled to California campaigns in 2012 by a network of nonprofits.

An investigation by California's campaign finance watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, showed that the money passed through a number of nonprofits. They included the Center to Protect Patient Rights in Phoenix, which has functioned as a clearinghouse for conservative causes and is run by a political consultant who has worked for bankrollers Charles and David Koch.

The case resulted in record fines because some of the transactions were not properly disclosed under state law. However, authorities said, the law wasn't strong enough to force the identities of the original contributors to be revealed.

A separate bill, one that would give the state Fair Political Practices Commission more authority to conduct investigations, passed the Legislature last week. That measure, AB 800 by Assemblyman Richard Gordon (D-Menlo Park), awaits action by Gov. Jerry Brown.

UC Irvine election law professor Rick Hasen said California has been one of the country's leaders in trying to keep disclosure laws effective. But "it's kind of a Whac-a-Mole or cat-and-mouse game," he said.

Campaigns are always coming up with new ways to avoid disclosure, he said, and the only limits are "the lawyers' imagination and billable hours."

Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.

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