Unions have been vocal about the negative effects of Citizens United on democracy, correctly pointing out how the unlimited secret spending that it unleashed on campaigns has drowned out the voices of working families. But now two of the biggest unions in California -- the Service Employees International Union and the California Teachers Association -- are blocking a key bill in Sacramento that would give voters a fighting chance by pulling back the curtain on who's behind political ads.
The California DISCLOSE Act (SB52) is simple. It lets voters know who is paying for ballot measure ads -- on the ads themselves.
Companies and unions no longer could hide behind "front groups" to keep their identities secret from voters. No more tiny on-screen text. TV ads would show the top three funders in big, readable letters on a black background.
In one example from a past California initiative, vague language like "Paid for by 'Stop Hidden Taxes' -- A Coalition of Taxpayers and Employers" would be replaced by language showing the real backers: "Ad paid for by a committee whose top funders are Chevron, American Beverage Association and Philip Morris."
Every election, California voters are asked to vote on a bewildering array of important and complicated ballot measures. To make thoughtful decisions about these measures, we need basic information about who is behind them -- including information about those funding the ads. So why are SEIU and the CTA trying to keep voters in the dark?
These two unions are among the largest spenders on election ads in California. Perhaps they think they would be less effective at buying influence if ads clearly identify them. MapLight, however, conducted voter research that shows that the support of SEIU or the CTA for a measure makes voters more likely to support the measure overall.
MapLight also found that overall voter support goes up when a measure is backed by the California Chamber of Commerce, a group that is often at odds with unions. Voters appear to want clarity into who is really behind measures.
Perhaps the SEIU and CTA are afraid they would be prevented from acting as "front groups" themselves for others' campaign funds. The DISCLOSE Act no longer would allow the SEIU, the Chamber of Commerce or any other group to secretly launder money to keep the true funders of political ads hidden from the public.
The CTA and SEIU, who are among the top funders of Democratic politicians in California, are already exercising their influence to stop disclosure.
On Aug. 14, the DISCLOSE Act was announced in the Assembly Appropriations Committee as proceeding on a party-line vote, in which all 12 Democrats were expected to vote in favor and all five Republicans in opposition. The final voting record shows that three Democrats switched their votes to oppose disclosure: Sebastian Ridley-Thomas recorded his vote as "no." Bill Quirk and Jimmy Gomez recorded theirs as "abstain." All three lawmakers received campaign funds from both the CTA and SEIU.
Why single out the CTA and SEIU for their opposition to the bill? Because these two unions are among the only groups in the entire state in opposition. Four hundred groups and leaders have endorsed the bill, along with more than 70,000 Californians who have signed petitions for it.
The Assembly will vote on the bill Saturday. If you know one of the 700,000 members of SEIU in California, ask them if they'd rather know who's really behind political ads, of if they'd rather be kept in the dark. And if you know any teachers, ask them why their union is trying to hide the basic information we all need to be informed California citizens.
Most importantly, if you're a voter, ask Assembly members Ridley-Thomas, Gomez and Quirk and every other legislator, When the DISCLOSE Act comes to its final vote, are you going to vote to let ballot measure funders hide because unions who give you money are telling you to vote that way, or are you going to stand with voters and give us the transparency we need?
Daniel G. Newman is president and co-founder of MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization tracking money and influence in politics.