Dan Walters

Political reformers agree sunshine is needed, but squabble over details

Jodi Remke, center, flanked by commissioners Patricia Wynne, left, and Eric Casher conduct business in 2014.
Jodi Remke, center, flanked by commissioners Patricia Wynne, left, and Eric Casher conduct business in 2014. Sacramento Bee file

A large coalition of “goo-goos” – Capitol jargon for reform groups such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters – wants the Legislature to shine the light of disclosure on those who provide “dark money” for political campaigns.

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission also wants the Legislature to crack down on those who contribute, or launder, money through misleadingly named “committees” that cloak their identities.

Nevertheless, as a decisive state Senate vote looms in the final days of the legislative session on a long-pending, oft-amended disclosure bill sponsored by the goo-goo groups, they find themselves in a war of words with the FPPC over details that could derail the measure.

Because Assembly Bill 700 amends the state’s Political Reform Act, it requires two-thirds votes of both legislative houses, and the squabble over details could make that difficult, if not impossible.

The clash arose after AB 700, which had passed the Assembly on a bipartisan, 60-15 vote, underwent a secretive overhaul in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Aug. 11, although the amendments weren’t posted until Aug. 17.

Appropriations committees are funnels which allow legislative leaders to kill or amend pending bills behind closed doors, without providing any reasons for what occurs.

In this case, AB 700 was extensively amended in ways the FPPC says could make it more difficult than the original bill to pinpoint those who secretly provide campaign money. One change requires proof of an “express agreement” that the money was intended for a particular political purpose while another removes “understanding” as one form of agreement.

“We think these are fatal flaws,” FPPC’s lobbyist, Phillip Ung, says of those and other amendments obviously drafted by someone, identity unknown, familiar with how arcane political disclosure laws are enforced.

Who was behind the changes is a mystery that Senate leaders are not about to clear up in public. That’s what the secretive appropriations committee process is all about – doing things without leaving any fingerprints to identify the perpetrators.

With the Senate vote looming, Ung distributed a detailed critique of the bill to legislators, and its sponsors, both the goo-goo groups and its co-authors, Democratic Assemblymen Marc Levine and Jimmy Gomez, countered with a point-by-point refutation of the criticisms.

Despite the changes, sponsors say that AB 700 still would provide significantly more disclosure of dark money contributors and that the supposed deficiencies cited by the FPPC are easily covered by other provisions of the measure. It describes the FPPC’s criticisms as “misplaced.”

“We expected the FPPC would welcome being able to enforce a new law ending such deception,” they said in their letter, which was distributed Friday, adding, “The FPPC … is not seeing the disclosure forest for the trees. And they are mostly wrong about the trees.”

“Sponsors are often the last ones to understand they’ve been hijacked by the process,” Ung counters, adding that the FPPC would prefer no bill to what it sees as sham reform.