Political Money Watchdog Wants More Transparency, Less Vague Payments

At the end of California's last legislative's session, a mailer landed in thousands of mailboxes slamming an historic climate change proposal that would have slashed petroleum use in cars and trucks in half by 2030. It was sent by a grassrootsie-sounding group called the California Drivers Alliance. But in reality, it was just Big Oil's mouthpiece, Western States Petroleum Association. 
The state reporting for money used for this type of advertising usually hides behind a a category called "other payments to influence." Under current law, anyone who spends at least $5,000 to sway legislation must report it. But while they have to say if they spent money buying a coffee for a lawmaker, they can hide the fact that they spent millions on advertising campaigns in the vague "other payments" without giving details. 
But the Fair Political Practices Commission on Thursday will be discussing requiring groups to disclose how they spend millions of dollars on ad campaigns and other efforts to influence state policy. According to the state's political money watchdog staff, "Lump sum reporting of this catchall category does not provide the public the ability to know how and where that money is spent." 
The proposal would have lobbyist employers break down expenditures that exceed $2,500 into categories that include paying employees other than lobbyists, advertising and public affairs work. They also would have to disclose the recipients of the payments.
While the FPPC continues to do a stellar job when it comes pushing for transparency, the rules as proposed need to be more stringent. For instance, the "public affairs" category is too broad. It would include money spent on things such as robocalling, paid spokespersons or organizers, all without details. The rule should include information about subvendors given $500 or more. 
Under the current regulations, well-funded special interests usually get away with it without the public knowing where the money came from. The only reason Big Oil was caught was that it was so brazen
In the third quarter of 2015, the WSPA hide $6.1 million, or around 91 percent, under “other payments to influence. According to the FPPC, the top 10 interest group spenders filed 69 percent of their payments under the category in 2014. Usually, this
The mailer above, and similar mailers accused Senate pro Tem Kevin de León, sponsor of SB 350, of “fighting to empower unelected bureaucrats in Sacramento, and taking away power and choice from your own constituents.” The top of the mailer screamed: “Gasoline Restrictions hurt families in LA.” If the legislation passed, the mailer alleged it would make it tougher for families to drive to work or buy groceries.
Because of the misleading "smokescreen," the bill removed the petroleum cut but eventually passed with requirements that public utilities use renewable resources for half the energy they provide by 2030 and increased energy efficiency for buildings.
Let the public know who is behind these misleading campaigns and maybe next time, Big Oil will lose. 

Capitol Watchdog is owned and operated by nonprofit Consumer Watchdog. For more information about Consumer Watchdog visit http://www.consumerwatchdog.org