Politics & Government

Dan Walters: California lawmakers finally pushing campaign sunshine

Slowly – perhaps too slowly – but surely, California is shining some much-needed light into the darker corners of its political system.

The Fair Political Practices Commission, implementing legislation enacted two years ago, is closing loopholes that allowed huge sums of “dark money” to flow into political campaigns without its origins being disclosed.

The legislation and the regulations were inspired, if that’s the correct word, by a big blowup during the 2012 election cycle over $15 million in mystery money that flowed into California to influence voters on two ballot measures, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase.

Under the new FPPC regulations, supposed nonprofit groups that are spending on California campaigns would have to disclose their original donors, even if the money floats through other groups.

“There should be no dark money in California,” Common Cause representative Gavin Baker told the commission before it acted.

During the current legislative session, two bills are moving to require more disclosure in political advertisements about their sponsors and to require those seeking government contracts to register as lobbyists.

Assembly Bills 700 and 1200 are similar to provisions of a proposed measure for the November ballot, backed by Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Jim Heerwagen and political reform groups, for which signatures were being gathered.

However, Heerwagen’s group stopped its signature-gathering campaign on Monday when he, Sen. Robert Hertzberg and Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced that Hertzberg would carry legislation mirroring a third major provision of the ballot measure – a much-needed modernization of Cal-Access, California’s campaign finance reporting system.

Despite its name, access to meaningful data through its Internet portal – when it’s not out of commission – has been clumsy, at best. Padilla has improved it slightly by allowing access through another portal that organizes the data, but it’s still a patchwork system that should embarrass the global center of digital data.

Brown, who as secretary of state in 1974 sponsored California’s Political Reform Act, directed the state Government Operations Agency in 2013 to review how it operates. Last year, the agency issued a report that cataloged deficiencies of the campaign finance and lobbying reporting system and proposed six options for improvement, including replacing Cal-Access.

Hertzberg’s Senate Bill 1349 would authorize a modernization of the system, easing use by both those required to make disclosures and those, such as we in the media, who seek information.

Simultaneously, Hertzberg is asking the Senate’s budget committee to provide a specific appropriation for the upgrade.

The current estimate for making Cal-Access a user-friendly, 21st-century system is $13.5 million, which is pocket lint in a state budget of well over $100 billion and an infinitesimal cost for allowing Californians to know who’s giving to whom and, implicitly, why.

It’s a cliché, but true, that sunshine is the best political disinfectant.