A California bill that supporters say could have shifted campaign finance into a new era of transparency was instead involuntarily withdrawn last week -- and the activists behind the bill are blaming the labor unions that united against it.
Authored by Democratic state Sens. Mark Leno and Jerry Hill and sponsored by the California Clean Money Campaign, Senate Bill 52, known as the DISCLOSE Act, failed last week in the state Assembly's final voting period of the legislative session. The bill would have required all political advertisements to prominently display the names of their three biggest funders, rather than allowing the contributors to conceal their identities and interests by hiding behind a front group with a vague name like "Californians Against Higher Taxes."
"The California DISCLOSE Act is by far the strongest on-ad disclosure law in the country, stopping ballot measure ads from deceiving voters about who paid for them by hiding their original funders in fine print behind purposefully misleading committees and front groups," California Clean Money Campaign president Trent Lange told The Huffington Post on Thursday. "It can be a model for the nation."
The bill was endorsed by more than 400 progressive groups, as well as by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the California Broadcasters Association, which hasn't supported a disclosure bill in two decades. Aside from the conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the only groups in opposition to the bill were labor unions, including two of the state's largest, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the California Teachers Association, Lange said.
On August 14, after the labor unions had declared their formal opposition to the DISCLOSE Act, three of the 12 Democratic assemblymembers on the Assembly Appropriations Committee unexpectedly did not vote in favor of the bill. State Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (West Los Angeles) voted against it, while state Assemblymen Bill Quirk (Fremont) and Jimmy Gomez (East Los Angeles) abstained, a move that Lange called as good as a no.
Although the bill still had the support it needed to move forward out of committee, it would not have passed with the necessary two-thirds support in an Assembly floor vote had Quirk or Gomez continued to abstain, so Leno and Hill withdrew it instead.
Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight, a nonprofit that tracks spending and influence in politics, told HuffPost that when unions take a stance, lawmakers may vote in their favor to ensure their support.
"Labor unions are one of the largest funders of political campaigns in California, and the SEIU and the California Teachers Association are among the biggest unions in the state," Newman said. "If you want to win an election in the California legislature, you need to raise a lot of money, and the No. 1 place politicians get that money is from interest groups. So that means a Democratic candidate is dependent on union money to get elected or re-elected."
Ridley-Thomas and Gomez were not able to comment on their votes before the time of publication. A spokesman for Quirk's office said that Quirk supported the intent behind the bill but "wanted additional time to consider the support and opposition arguments before committing his vote."
Why would labor unions unite so strongly against a bill calling for more transparency? In an undated letter to the California Assembly obtained by HuffPost, the SEIU warns that the process of obtaining and reporting information about who's funding ads could prove to be too costly for any but the most well-funded campaigns, and that the DISCLOSE Act would thus put smaller campaigns at a disadvantage.
In another letter, obtained by Salon, the CTA reportedly argued that the DISCLOSE Act would violate free speech laws. On its website, the CTA suggests that campaign finance transparency is already sufficiently covered by the Political Reform Act of 1974.
But those explanations aren't satisfying to the campaign finance reformers who backed the bill and who say they'd asked the unions to suggest an alternative approach.
"People don't understand how organized labor leaders not only opposed SB 52, but declined for over a year to propose a solution that wouldn't allow original funders to hide behind layers of front groups," Lange told HuffPost, adding that the bill's authors even incorporated an additional 18 amendments at the suggestion of the unions. "Everybody keeps asking us if that means that labor wants the ability to conceal this crucial information from voters, and I don't know what to tell them."
Neither the SEIU nor the CTA returned a request for comment.
Whatever the motivation of the labor unions opposing the bill, Lange told HuffPost that the bill's failure to move forward will do a huge favor for corporations with more controversial interests at stake. He pointed to Prop 29, the failed 2012 measure to increase cigarette taxes, which he said had led two-to-one in state polls until $66 million in opposing ads went live with the fine print "Paid for by Californians Against Out of Control Taxes and Spending." The ads' actual funders were Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds Tobacco.
Labor groups "are supposed to stand up for the interests of regular working people, the vast majority of which support disclosure of the true identity of the largest donors to political ads," San Francisco activist Joni Eisen said in a email read on KALW radio on Tuesday. "Why is labor on the side of the Koch brothers, big oil, big pharma [...] on this issue? What do they want to hide?"