Monetary influence on the democratic process will be explored this week as Californians head to the ballot box to decide on a variety of heavily funded social and economic propositions.
Initiatives offered on the ballot this year have received nearly $350 million in sponsorship funding from various business groups, unions and corporate donors. According to state data presented by MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization, there are four propositions on the California ballot this year with affirmative and opposition funding in combined excess of $45 million each, the most expensive being Proposition 32.
This initiative, which aims to ban political contributions by payroll deduction and contributions from unions and corporations, has been reported as receiving $135.7 million in funding by parties for and against the measure.
One of the top contributors in favor of Proposition 32 and against Proposition 30 — Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase measure to benefit public education — is Arizona-based nonprofit organization Americans for Responsible Leadership. Last month, the group donated $11 million to Small Business Action Committee PAC, which is working to quash 30 and support 32.
Gov. Brown released a statement earlier this week condemning the donation as money laundering by Californians using Arizona to “hide from their own state’s sunshine laws.”
“Someone’s been using a phony non-profit in Arizona to funnel money from unnamed donors into our state,” Brown said in his statement. “They’ve sunk tens of millions of dollars of their personal fortunes into a shameless propaganda campaign to defeat Prop 30.”
On Sunday, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Americans for Responsible Leadership must release its records and finally divulge its funding sources. Though the group retracted their request to the U.S. Supreme Court to halt disclosure yesterday and eventually handed over their records last night, the disclosure provided little information. The documents show that ARL received the $11 million from two federally registered nonprofits: Americans for Job Security and an intermediary group, the Center to Protect Patient Rights.
While federal law permits nonprofits to protect their donors’ identities, California law mandates that donors must be identified if the receiving nonprofit intends to spend the donation on in-state campaigns.
On Monday, California Fair Political Practices Commission — the state’s elections watchdog agency — called the ARL debacle the largest instance of campaign money laundering in California’s history.
Another heavily funded measure this year is Proposition 37. The initiative, which calls for labeling on food products created from plants or animals with altered genetic material, has received $45.6 million in opposition funding and only $8.9 million in donations supporting it. Unsurprisingly, the largest single donor for the opposition is agricultural giant Monsanto, a company which specializes in genetically modified crop production. To date, Monsanto has given more than $8 million to the campaign against Proposition 37.
Originally created as a means of combating corporate monetary power in the state legislature, the ballot initiative system was introduced in 1911 as one of several progressive era acts in California. The idea of direct democracy — that citizens could propose and vote on laws independent of the legislature — was considered a revolutionary method of safeguarding the state against the potentially negative influence of wealth on public policy.
Technically, any person can propose a ballot initiative, but the 504,760 signatures currently required for each proposal are now often procured by signature-gathering companies. As the required number of signatures is based on population figures, the process has become increasingly expensive over the years.