California Fights Back

Last fall, California voters were confronted with two major and hotly-contested ballot measures—Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal (Proposition 30) to raise taxes on the rich to end the state’s chronic budget shortfalls, and a conservative initiative (Proposition 32) which would have curtailed unions’ ability to spend their treasuries on political campaigns. Proposition 30 passed and Proposition 32 was soundly defeated, but they had to overcome a joint, well-funded campaign by rightwing interests to prevail.

As we reported in the January-February issue of the Prospect, the anti-30, pro-32 campaign received an $11 million contribution a few weeks before the election whose source could not be traced. The money came into the campaign from an Arizona-based 501c4—a “social welfare” organization that spends its funds on political campaigns but is not required to list the source of its funding. Under public pressure and in response to a court order, the Arizona group did reveal shortly before the election that it had received the funding from yet another 501c4, which had received its funds from another 501c4, which had received its funds from yet another 501c4, the Virginia based Americans for Job Security, which declined to reveal its funding sources. Drug money is seldom laundered so expertly.

Responding to this Russian-doll concealment, Democratic state legislators in Sacramento have authored several bills this year to compel such organizations that involve themselves in California election to identify the source of their funding. A bill by Bay Area Assemblyman Richard Gordon would require all organizations that spend at least 10 percent of their budgets in California to make public all of their funders who have given them more than $10,000. Gordon’s is just one of several bills that would try to stanch the flood of unsourced money into the state’s politics. All such bills require two-thirds support in each house of the legislature to be enacted, but Democrats have two-thirds majorities in both houses. If passed and signed by Brown, the bills would then have to surmount a likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has shown itself notoriously receptive to flooding politics with cash. The court’s swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, however, has also written that the public is entitled to know where that cash comes from, so it’s anybody’s guess how the Court would rule on such a case.

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