Though the U.S. Supreme Court believes otherwise, the public is disgusted with the money that has swamped our political system and wants a major overhaul. A growing number of Republicans and Democrats alike want more restrictions on wealthy influence peddlers and more disclosure of donors who give to organizations that get involved in elections.
In California, we saw a sad example of this type of hidden "dark money" in the 2012 election. Two-out-of-state nonprofits, tied to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, secretly funneled millions into independent expenditure committees that backed efforts to kill a tax hike initiative and supported an initiative that wanted to curb unions’ ability to raise political cash. Both attempts failed (Prop. 30 passed and Prop. 32 failed), and the Fair Political Practices Commission levied a record $1 million fine against the nonprofits for failing to properly report the donations.
Despite the ever-expanding swamp of deep-pocketed donors, corporate shills and lobbyists, good government advocates in California and state agencies overseeing both continue to push for more disclosure and stricter rules.
On Monday, the Fair Political Practices Commission unveiled proposals to stop illegal coordination between political campaigns and outside groups that can collect unlimited amounts of money and a few weeks ago adopted requirements that nonprofit groups that contribute through a federal political action committee to support or oppose ballot measures or candidates in the state disclose their donors.
A transparency group has also submitted an initiative to require disclosure of anyone who contributes $10,000 or more when the money ends up in a political effort, increase scrutiny for lobbyists, and update and modernize the state’s electronic filing system. The proposal would also enshrine in the state constitution the right to disclosure.
In addition, the Secretary of State has updated its website, in a partnership with the nonprofit group Maplight, to make it easier for the public to see who is getting what from whom.
The increased scrutiny of money is needed. Since 2010, nearly $2.5 billion has been spent to sway California politics, according to Secretary of State data. In the last five years, political candidates in California have received $196.6 million in campaign contributions; donors have poured $724 million into independent expenditure committees; and $1.56 billion has been spent on lobbying.
More than $221 million in direct campaign contributions was given to candidates for the 2014 election cycle. These contributions have limits. Independent expeditures have none. According to Maplight, major donor and independent expenditure committees spent $80 million on candidates and ballot measures in 2014 with $56,914,682 (71%) spent in support of candidates and ballot measures, and $23,617,714 (29%) spent in opposition. Below is the breakdown in support or opposition to candidates used through IEs.