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A Capitol dispute over disclosure

A photo illustration of an ad campaign program on a laptop. (Photo: Tashatuvango, via Shutterstock)

California’s political watchdog, which fights to reveal the political money trail, is opposing legislation that appears to do exactly that.

The Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces campaign ethics rules, has come out against two bills aimed at disclosure.

The five-member commission voted on March 17 to oppose AB 700 by Democratic Assemblymembers Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, and Marc Levine, D-Marin County. The bill, a detailed piece of legislation that requires video advertisements to list their $50,000-plus donors on a black background, centered on separate lines and in type that must be at least 2.5 percent of the height of the screen. The bill also requires updating the disclosures when there is a change in the committee’s top contributors.

The FPPC said it opposed the bill unless it was amended.

“The problem is the way it is currently drafted, there’s going to be greater confusion than there already is in the area, which is a fairly confusing area,” Remke said.

“Through this landmark, first-in-the-nation bill, we’ve never been closer, anywhere in the country, to shining a light on ‘dark money’ in all its forms by making it illegal for voters to be misled about who is truly paying for political ads,” Trent Lange, head of the Clean Money Campaign, said in an earlier written statement.

Commission Chair Jodi Remke said during a commission hearing that the legislation has “really good goals.”

“The problem is the way it is currently drafted, there’s going to be greater confusion than there already is in the area, which is a fairly confusing area,” she said.

The FPPC also voted on March 17 to oppose AB 1200 by Assemblymember Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, which would require those lobbying for government contracts on behalf of clients to register as lobbyists. The bill, approved earlier in the Senate, awaits final action in the Assembly.

What this bill tells you [the FPPC] to do is what you already do,” Gordon said. “Not something new. Not inserting you into the procurement process.”

In a letter to Gordon, Remke said she did not believe the FPPC was the right agency to deal with the “highly specialized area” of government contracts, stating it is best regulated by the Department of General Services and other similar agencies.

However, Gordon testified at the hearing that his bill would not have the FPPC enter into the world of state government procurement.

“What this bill tells you [the FPPC] to do is what you already do,” Gordon said. “Not something new. Not inserting you into the procurement process.”

“The vast majority of folks who are going to be reporting under this law are folks who are currently registered [lobbyists],” Gordon said.

But Remke said there a limitations to what can be disclosed and when it’s disclosed on lobbying forms.

“We’re spending a lot of our time this year on lobbying,” Remke said during the commission hearing, “and our goal is to tighten that definition and the meaning of what a lobbyist does and then increase disclosure on that information.”

According to an Assembly Elections Committee analysis, at least 18 states — including Texas, Florida, Arizona and New York — have laws that regulate lobbying for government contracts.

Current California law does not require disclosure for lobbying state contracting decisions. About $11 billion worth of state contracts were authorized in 2014.

The commission has not yet taken a position on a third major transparency-related bill, SB 1349 by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys.

“The voters passed the Political Reform Act with a desire to see transparency in their government,” Gordon told TechWire, which reported the story on March 24. “Eleven billion dollars in contracts — we need transparency,” Gordon said.

Gordon’s bill would require persons hired by companies to assist or lobby for a government contract that exceeds $250,000 to register as a lobbyist. This would exclude in-house lobbyists, who work within the company and are lobbying for procurement.

The advertisement disclosure bill, AB 700, drew more than 3,600 identical emails from AB 700 proponents asking the commission to not go on record opposing the legislation until after working with the authors and bill sponsors. The FPPC voted to oppose the bill unless it was amended.

AB 700 would add confusing and inconsistent provisions to an Act that is often criticized as “complex,” Remke said in a letter to Gomez and Levine.

Among the committee’s “broader concerns,” Remke wrote, were exempting communications paid by political parties or candidate-controlled election committees from advertisement’s definition and a potential for “compelled speech” litigation from expanding the advertisement rules.

AB 700 is expected to be heard in the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee in June.

The commission has not yet taken a position on a third major transparency-related bill, SB 1349 by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys.

That measure would update and overhaul the state’s Cal-Access system, which provides tracking of campaign spending, lobbyist payments and the activities of independent expenditure committees. The measure is backed by California’s secretary of state, the state’s chief elections officer, which supervises Cal-Access.

“The FPPC has long advocated for a new, modern campaign and lobbying disclosure system,” Remke said in a written statement. “It is difficult to fulfill our important mission or advocate for reform under the current system. We will continue to work diligently to create a new filing system that ensures strict enforcement, provides meaningful disclosure, and enhances public trust.”

After AB 1200 and AB 700, Hertzberg’s SB 1349 was the third piece of legislation dealing with some of the changes proposed by the Voters Right to Know, a reform group led by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Jim Heerwagen.

“I like to think that the Voter’s Right to Know Act helped spur a lot of that movement,” said Gary Winuk, the FPPC’s former chief enforcement officer who worked with Heerwagen in drafting the proposed initiative. “It’s nice to be popular. I think a lot of our ideas and our concept resonated with the Legislature, and really, the country.”

While these bills are “three big chunks” of the proposition, Winuk said, the initiative’s other provisions limiting gift giving, amending the constitution to guarantee Californians’ rights to disclosure, and tracing dark money will be addressed another time.

“There’ll always be more work to do,” Winuk said. “These are really good steps.”

 

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