Capitol Alert

California initiative would require more campaign finance disclosure

Bob Stern, the former president of the Center on Governmental Studies, speaks during a round-table discussion at the San Jose Mercury News in 2005.
Bob Stern, the former president of the Center on Governmental Studies, speaks during a round-table discussion at the San Jose Mercury News in 2005. San Jose Mercury News file

A coalition of political transparency advocates submitted an initiative proposal Wednesday for next year’s statewide ballot that would shed more light on campaign spending and eliminate some perks of elected office in California.

The group, including Bob Stern, an author of the state’s 41-year-old sweeping political ethics law, and Gary Winuk, the former chief of enforcement at the watchdog agency it created, said their measure would establish California as a national model for campaign finance disclosure.

The Voters’ Right to Know Act would close “dark money” loopholes for nonprofit donors by requiring disclosure of anyone who contributes $10,000 or more when the money ends up in a political effort, Stern said in a presentation to The Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau.

It also would update and modernize the state’s electronic filing system, make disclosure of contributors more apparent on television ads and strengthen some penalties for violators. It would ban lobbyists and those who employ them from giving gifts of any value to public officials and cut from $460 to $200 the maximum value of gifts an individual can give to an official each year. And it would enshrine in the state constitution the right to disclosure, something the proponents believe would help build momentum for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its decision in the Citizens United case.

“In my view, this initiative probably is the most significant since the Political Reform Act of 1974,” Stern said.

The dark money piece was inspired by a 2012 case involving an Arizona-based nonprofit organization that received millions from nonprofits and other sources before passing them on in an apparent attempt to shield the identity of its backers. The money eventually flowed to the Small Business Action Committee PAC to oppose Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 tax increase and support Proposition 32 that sought to weaken labor unions.

Winuk worked on the case under then-FPPC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, now serving on the Federal Election Commission and a supporter of the initiative.

“I think when you have disclosure there will be people who won’t contribute because they don’t want their name associated,” Winuk said of the provision.

The measure would restrict influence in areas in which elected officials have resisted to act. Legislation barring companies and organizations that retain lobbyists from providing lawmakers gifts, such as tickets to concerts and sporting events, have repeatedly faltered.

Meanwhile, proponents note that legislation to overhaul the state’s buggy campaign-finance portal, Cal-Access, has similarly gone nowhere at the Capitol. They propose spending $13 million via the secretary of state’s office to modernize the website.

And it appropriates $975,000 in the first year, adjusted for inflation, to the FPPC to beef up enforcement of the state ethics law.

The measure leaves in place the current contribution limits for state candidates and would not affect contributions to congressional candidates. Lawmakers also could continue to take special interest-funded junkets to far-flung locales.

The effort is largely funded by Jim Heerwagen, a Los Gatos software entrepreneur who said he plans to coordinate with other groups to qualify the measure.

“I won’t fund it myself,” he said, adding that he doesn’t anticipate large sums being spent on either side of the issue.

Heerwagen said he believes that policymaking has tilted away from the public interest and toward special interest groups with money and influence. He said he’s passionate about childhood nutrition – he supports sweetened-beverage labeling – and upset about the pull of payday lenders that reap profits from poor and minority customers.

Heerwagen named another motivation: His three college-age sons and their friends, and the kind of political environment he hopes to leave for them.

“They have a view that the system is rigged in such a way that their participation in democracy doesn’t matter,” he said. “And that’s an entire swath of citizens that are disengaged, and they are not re-engaging as they get older.

“The way our democracy is running right now is just wrong. And I think this is the primary issue for our society right now.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago