When voters go to the polls, they deserve to know all the relevant facts about candidates on the ballot. What are their positions? How have they voted? What's their experience?
And then they need to know the most crucial question: Which interest groups and which individuals are bankrolling their campaigns?
Unfortunately, the state's campaign laws don't always make that information available in a way that is easily accessible or timely.
As California Watch, a project for the Center for Investigative Reporting, noted in a recent article, wealthy and politically well-connected donors contributed tens of thousands of dollars to party central committees during the last election cycle. Those committees, in turn, delivered the money to their party candidates.
Because the money does not go directly to candidates, the donor's identity is often obscured and contribution limits ignored.
Proposition 34, California's complex and easily evaded campaign law, makes this sleight of hand legal. Placed on the ballot in 2000 by the state's most powerful politicians and approved by voters, Proposition 34 permits individuals to contribute a maximum of $3,900 directly to candidates for the state legislature. But under those same rules, donors can contribute eight times as much, or $32,400, to party central committees in each of California's 58 counties. The committees are then free to pass along those donations to candidates.
It doesn't take a political genius to jump through the loopholes in the law. After contributors max out on their direct contributions, they are encouraged to send more money to party committees. The committees then pass the money on to the contributor's candidate of choice. While the law forbids coordination between central committees and candidates -- wink, wink -- that coordination happens.
Even more troubling, this practice allows candidates to avoid disclosing the true source of their contributions. As money flows from donor to remote central committee to candidates, too often the link between candidate and donor becomes obscure.
The Fresno County Republican Central Committee got caught up in the funding manipulation and had to pay a fine to the FPPC. It began when San Diego County interests sent $82,900 to the Fresno County committee last May. The Fresno County GOP then sent San Diego County Assembly Member Joel Anderson $78,755.
FPPC audits have shown that political committees frequently fail to disclose the money they distribute to candidates.
At minimum, the public should have a right to know who is bankrolling a campaign before they go in the ballot booth. Any candidate who violates disclosure requirements should face stiff penalties -- not just the forfeiture of the funds collected and fines paid for by his or her campaign.
These penalties should include personal liability for violations. As the tough-on-crime candidates tell us: If you break the law, you should not be coddled by the system.