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Time for More Disclosure of Independent Expenditures in California

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Californians may soon be able to obtain more information about those giving and spending money in political campaigns. Assembly Bill (AB) 481 recently passed through the Legislature with support from both sides of the aisle. That bill would increase disclosure for independent expenditures.

Independent expenditures are campaign funds spent by people or entities independent of, meaning not coordinated with, candidates. The Supreme Court long ago ruled that independent expenditures cannot be limited, because any limitation would pose an unconstitutional burden on free speech under the First Amendment. Most recently, the Citizens United, the Supreme Court reiterated that holding and concluded that independent expenditures by corporations could not be restricted.

Money now flows quite freely through our electoral processes. AB 481 would shine a light on much of the independent spending in California. Specifically, AB 481 would increase disclosure for independent expenditures made in support or opposition to candidates or ballot measures. For instance, AB 481 would require disclosure within 24 hours of independent expenditures above $1,000 involving local races and ballot measures, which are made within 90 days of an election (current law already requires this disclosure for state candidates and ballot measures). Among other things, AB 481 would also require disclosure on newspaper ads and billboards of the independent expenditure committee's name and its top two donors of at least $50,000 (and current already law requires this disclosure for broadcast advertisements and mass mailings).

Disclosure laws allow the public to obtain vital information about the source and use of campaign funds. This information allows the public to evaluate the weight to give political advertisements. There is a reason that on commercials people are required to disclose whether they are a paid spokesperson -- we accord more credibility to advertisements depending on the source of that advertisement.

AB 481 looks like a big step in the right direction. The state's political watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), is advocating for its passage. The FPPC has been tracking independent spending for years and is in a great position to push for smart reform.

Governor Brown has until the end of the month to sign that bill into law.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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