This is of course not just a Davis issue, in fact, the FPPC just released an analysis that found that $127 million has been spent by special interests on independent expenditures since California voters enacted contribution limits for statewide and legislative candidates in 2000 with the passage of Proposition 34, according to information released today by the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s political watchdog.
“There are now 127 million loopholes in California’s campaign finance laws, every one of them undermining the will of the people of this state,” said he continued. “This level of uncontrolled special interest spending on both sides of the aisle has made the legal limits on contributions to candidates almost completely irrelevant.”
“Independent expenditures are just one way for special interests to evade the limits on direct contributions to state candidates, but there are others as well. It may be time for us to take a much closer look at the rules governing the use of independent committees,” said Mr. Schnur. “Those who are planning on funding these types of activities in the general election should consider this as their advance notice.”
According to the release, it is especially difficult for voters to track the true source of spending on behalf of candidates because many independent expenditure committees frequently make contributions to other IE committees. This additional layer obscures the identities of the original donors. Facilitating full disclosure is crucial to ensuring the public’s right to know which interests are funding political campaigns.
8th Assembly District Voters may well remember the barrage of mailers that EdVoice sent out on behalf of West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon’s campaign back in 2008. The barrage may have backfired, as voters recoiled from the shear quantity but also the tone of the nasty mailers. At one point talking to representatives from that campaign, they admitted frustration but they had no control over what EdVoice was doing as it was an independent effort outside of their hands. Along with the work of unions, EdVoice helped turn that race that was supposed to handily to Mayor Cabaldon into a major upset victory for Mariko Yamada.
In the release from the FPPC, EdVOice ranks as the number one source of campaign expenditures in the June 2010 elections spending in excess of $2 million on a variety of races including the Superintendent of Public instruction, and the failed candidacy for Gloria Romero along with some assembly races.
From the FPPC release, $17 million was spent on IEs just in the primary election cycle alone.
“With nearly $17 million spent on IEs in the 2009-2010 primary election cycle alone, the top ten special interests accounted for $10.4 million of the independent expenditures, representing more than 60 percent of the total spent. The top five committees: EdVoice Independent Expenditure Committee, JobsPAC, California Teachers Association Independent Expenditure Committee, Put California Back to Work and California Realtors led all IEs with a combined $7 million poured into state primary contests.”
The question really is what more can be done to regulate their activities? The issue is one of free speech that has been time and again ruled in the Supreme Court to include campaigns and in particular the use of money as a means to disseminate campaign materials to the voters.
The only real possibility for additional layers of enforcement may be to at least require instant and full disclosure of where money is coming from. But even that is not a improvement.
Take Davis for instance, in the IE that spawned the controversy, and might I add, certainly did not aid Ms. Vergis’ campaign given the fall out, the declared contributors were Ruth Asmundson and Marty West who each gave about $550 in direct and indirect contributions. But how would we ever know if someone else gave them that money to donate? We would not.
On the other hand, some will argue, as I might, that in fact the example of Cabaldon and the example of West/ Asmundson show the process working as it should. People are free to spend money, but if they are not careful or appear unscrupulous their efforts may actually hurt rather than help the intended beneficiaries.
One thing is clear, the need for adequate coverage and monitoring of such activity is vital if democracy is going to survive in an age where monied interests can spend huge and unregulated quantities with limited to disclosure to impact elections. On the other hand, we have reason for hope that the voters are at least not always fooled by such efforts. I refer back to the PG&E effort, certainly not an IE, but certainly an example of huge amounts of money failing to buy all of the necessary votes.
—David M. Greenwald reporting