Capitol Alert

Filings sometimes obscure California political ad details

A screen grab from a TV ad opposing Proposition 48, a November 2014 referendum on a proposed Madera tribal casino.
A screen grab from a TV ad opposing Proposition 48, a November 2014 referendum on a proposed Madera tribal casino. No on Proposition 48

Today’s Sacramento Bee report on how ballot measure, legislative and independent committees spread the wealth during California’s last election cycle excluded the many millions of campaign dollars received by broadcast television stations.

If broadcast advertising payments had been included, TV stations – which earned at least $104 million in 2013 and 2014, according to campaigns’ reports to the state – would have dominated the lists of top campaign payees.

Government records, though, can make it particularly challenging for people to track the money behind election-season ads that blanket the airwaves.

State law requires campaigns to report any payments to subvendors, such as a media buyer’s payment to a TV station for ads. And federal rules require TV stations to upload ad buy data to the Federal Communications Commission’s public inspection file website.

Stations’ online public files often are a jumble of folders and reports in a format that prevents easy review. Filings for state ballot measure campaign committees, in some cases, failed to list the proposition number and are mixed in with the filings of federal Super PACs and non-election advocacy groups.

Open-government groups have accused some TV stations of violating the FCC rules. The FCC, meanwhile, is mulling whether to expand its online public file regulations to cover radio stations and cable companies.

Campaign reports filed with the state also make it difficult to tally TV numbers. For example, California TV stations’ public files for 2014 showed hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad buys by opponents of Proposition 48, the November referendum on a proposed Madera tribal casino.

The no-on-48 committee’s state reports, though, shows no such spending. That’s because the ads actually were in-kind contributions from Friant-based Table Mountain Rancheria, which viewed the planned Madera casino as competition.

Table Mountain reports to the state a major donor, not a traditional fundraising committee such as the no-on-48 campaign. And on the last page of the tribe’s most recent major donor filing, in eye-straining type, are the dozens of TV stations that received the tribe’s advertising money.

Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2.