SACRAMENTO — Lawmakers approved a pair of bills Thursday to strengthen the authority of California’s campaign watchdog agency and require political nonprofits to reveal their donors, changes that will be in effect for this year’s elections if signed into law by the governor.
Democratic lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate passed the legislation over Republican opposition. Both measures respond to $15 million in anonymous donations funneled into two 2012 initiative campaigns that prompted the largest campaign reporting fine in California history.
The Assembly approved SB27 by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, on a 54-17 vote. The bill requires tax-exempt nonprofits that are actively involved in elections to comply with campaign finance reporting requirements. This includes disclosing donors who understood their money was intended for California campaigns. A similar proposed ballot measure served as a backup in case the Legislature didn’t act, attorney Lance Olson said.
Supporters say the bill closes an exploited loophole, while Republicans say this could lead to donor harassment.
State regulators investigated a murky trail of “dark money” that was spent to oppose Gov. Jerry Brown’s successful tax increase initiative in 2012 and to support a separate, failed initiative that would have limited the ability of unions to raise money for political purposes. Donors concealed their identities by giving money to an Arizona-based nonprofit that funneled the cash to California political action committees through intermediary groups, investigators said.
California’s watchdog Fair Political Practices Commission issued a $1 million dollar fine against two of groups involved, saying they were in a network of conservative political nonprofit corporations funded by billionaires Charles and David H. Koch. The committees agreed to repay $15 million in contributions, but its unlikely most of that money will be recovered.
“This bill is about addressing a rising tide of schemes and dark money organizations who don’t have any accountability to the public,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville.
But Republican lawmakers say the bill infringes on people’s right to participate in a democracy without facing retaliation.
“There’s a reason for anonymity,” said Republican lawmaker Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita. “Let’s not take that one incident and throw out years, decades and centuries of tradition.”
As an example, he pointed to reported harassment and boycotts of those who donated in support of Proposition 8 outlawing same-sex marriage in California.
The bill would also require campaign committees that raise more than $1 million to maintain an accurate list of top 10 contributors of $10,000 or more. Those lists would be placed online on the watchdog Fair Political Practices Commission website before elections.
On a party-line vote with no debate, meanwhile, the state Senate approved a bill that is intended to strengthen California’s campaign finance safeguards. AB800, by Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park, gives the state Fair Political Practices Commission more enforcement authority and the ability to audit campaign funds before elections.
Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, who carried the Assembly bill in the Senate, said it is intended to ensure “that voters may be fully informed and unlawful practices may be inhibited.”
Regulators would have two years, instead of the current one year, to audit campaign funds, a provision that Lieu said is needed because “some of these audits are really complex.”
The bill also addresses disclosure of donations by subcontractors and sub-vendors, the entities involved in the dark money case.
The bill also would allow the commission to seek a court injunction to force compliance with its investigations before an election. “Otherwise, candidates can be elected and the issue becomes … less important because the person already got into office,” Lieu said.
It also would require candidates who leave office to decide within 90 days what to do with any remaining campaign funds. Lieu said that is intended to make sure that former officeholders aren’t still using campaign funds to pay expenses after they no longer hold office.
Both bills head back to their original houses for votes on amendments. If signed into law, they would take effect July 1.