Why Did Campaign Watchdog Kill Campaign Disclosure?

AB 700, to improve disclosure in political ads and ferret out the true source of campaign funding, was killed in the legislature this week by a surprising foe: the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Consumer Watchdog submited a Public Records Act request to the FPPC today to try to get to the bottom of this mystery, asking for all communications into and out of the Commission on AB 700, and other key reform bills that were killed or watered down beyond efficacy this year.

The voters should be able to rely on the state’s top campaign and ethics watchdog to support legislation strengthening transparency in political campaigns. A proactive Commission would be proposing those reforms themselves.  But instead of working to make campaigns and government more transparent, the FPPC is strolling the halls of the Capitol actively fighting reform. And it turns out AB 700 isn’t the only reform bill the FPPC had a hand in stopping this year.

AB 700, by Assemblymembers Gomez and Levine, would have traced dark money earmarked by donors to initiative or independent expenditure committees to identify the true source of donations, and required the top three funders of political committees be clearly disclosed in ads with “Major Funding From” language displayed on-screen. It died on the Senate Floor Tuesday, losing by just one vote.

Good government groups cite multiple other bills that were gutted or killed, in part at this FPPC’s hand. The FPPC opposed AB 2002, which would have required disclosure by the Coastal Commission of members’ private meetings with developers, and would have required developers’ lobbyists register as such with the FPPC. The Commission has been under heavy scrutiny for undue developer and oil industry influence after its long-time executive director, considered a foe of development interests, was sacked in closed-door meetings. The bill died five votes short on the Senate floor last night. The FPPC also opposed AB 1200 (Gordon), which would have required lobbyist registration by people who lobby for government contracts. The bill in a weakened form was vetoed by the Governor. And the Commission opposed AB 2523 (Mullin), which would have extended campaign contribution limits to cities across the state, until the author agreed to the FPPC’s amendment demands. It also failed in the Senate this week.  Would these bills have had a better shot with a champion at the FPPC?

I heard a dramatic warning in a radio interview by Jodi Remke, Chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, the day before the vote on AB 700. Remke claimed “shadowy” groups had “hijacked” a campaign disclosure bill so it would actually weaken transparency for voters.

It's an unfortunate truth that bills are amended in sketchy ways in Sacramento all the time. Ultimately, what matters most is what the amendments do. AB 700 would have given voters more information than they have today about campaign donors. Every one of the 300 groups backing the bill, including the state’s top good government groups and the principle co-author of the Political Reform Act, Bob Stern, agreed. That's why they did everything in their power to pass the bill until time ran out on the legislative year.

The PRA results may flip Remke's words back to her: Have shadowy interests hijacked the FPPC into sabotaging campaign reform?

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