A proposed California campaign finance reform law could backfire and hurt good actors rather than rein in shadowy interest groups, according to watchdog organizations.
After difficult to detect out-of-state money poured into the 2012 election -- most notably, an Arizona nonprofit funneled $11 million into two ballot measures in California -- the California Fair Political Practices Commission has considered a range of responses, including a slate of bills that would fortify disclosure requirements.
But some California nonprofits have become concerned that one of those bills, intended to illuminate the path of political money, would end up penalizing smaller entities that follow the rules and freely disclose their spending.
Assembly Bill 914, introduced by Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park, on behalf of the FPPC, would introduce a new form on which nonprofits that spend at least $50,000 in a given election cycle would need to list their donors. That could translate into costly, redundant and time-consuming paperwork for nonprofits that already comply with regulations, according to Phillip Ung, a policy advocate for the California branch of Common Cause.
"It would be a headache for them," Ung said. "It would be burdensome. There are times when people overstep their ambition on these issues and they step on the little guys who are just trying to follow the rules."
That wouldn't be the case, the FPPC's chief of enforcement countered. Gary Winuk noted that nonprofits already need to carefully track any political spending to make sure they don't lose their tax-exempt status.
"I think they're completely mistaken about what the bill does," Winuk said, calling AB 914 -- coupled with a Senate bill also aimed at deeper disclosure -- an effort "to make sure no one falls through the cracks, that the public knows who is making these campaign contributions or expenditures."
A recent Senate floor amendment clarified that organizations wouldn't need to file information they had already provided, an effort to reduce the risk of redundancy that has some advocates concerned. But that was not enough to mollify critics who discussed their concerns with Gordon's office and with FPPC representatives during a Wednesday afternoon conference call that Ung, who participated in the teleconference, called discouraging.
"They still didn't answer everyone's questions about who would get caught in this," Ung said, adding that "the FPPC believes they can operate and move this bill forward despite the concerns from the nonprofit community."
Ung also called on the FPPC to crack down on spending by corporations that channel money into politics through political action committees.
The bill has passed the Assembly and currently awaits a Senate floor vote. Any bill affecting the Political Reform Act must be in print for 12 days before it can get a vote -- a window unique to such legislation -- so given a September 13 deadline to pass bills introduced this session, amending AB 914 at this point would make it a two-year bill.
PHOTO: An attorney shows the legal papers his firm filed after a Fair Political Practices Commission hearing on September 30, 2011 in Sacramento, California. The Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer.