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October 30, 2012

Do Ballot Initiatives Foster the Darker Side of Political Spending?

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By Associate Clinical Professor Jessica Levinson

Californians will soon go to the polls to weigh in on no less than eleven ballot initiatives. These initiatives could change the law on everything from the death penalty to the labeling of food.

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I have previously written here about the pitfalls of the initiative process. This mechanism of direct democracy, designed to guard against the power special interests held over our elected officials, is now similarly controlled by special interests. Money is the driving factor behind which proposals qualify for the ballot.

Large sums are spent not only to pay signature gatherers to get proposals placed on the ballot but also to support or oppose those measures once they qualify for the ballot. One need only to open the mailbox or certain websites, or turn on the television or radio, to see the enormous amounts of money being spent to attempt to sway voters on these eleven initiatives.

Last week I wrote about a large donation, $11 million to be exact, given by an Arizona non-profit corporation to two ballot measure committees in California.

This post is, in part, an update on events that occurred last week. Currently members of the voting public only know that a group called "Americans for Responsible Leadership" donated that large sum to a committee opposing Proposition 30 and supporting Proposition 32. Proposition 30 is Governor Jerry Brown's tax initiative. The initiative would raise income taxes on high wage earners and sales taxes for all and put that increased revenue towards public education. (I previously discussed Prop 30 here) Proposition 32, while styled as good government reform, is in fact an effort to reduce the political power of unions in California. (I wrote about Prop 32 here).

Other than the name of the organization, the place it "resides," and the committees to which it donated money, the public knows little to nothing about Americans for Responsible Leadership. In an effort to give the public vitally important information about the identity of this organization, the State's political watchdog organization, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) sued the organization.

The court held a quick procedural hearing last week, and will hold a hearing on the merits of the case next week, one week before the election. It remains to be seen whether the public will obtain information about this group before the election. I am, however, hopeful that this experience and the quick actions by the FPPC will prevent this scenario from repeating election after election.

This post originally appeared on KCET-TV's SoCal Focus blog, for which the author writes regularly.