Dark Money Didn’t Cause This CA Problem

We have no one to blame but ourselves.

Little about political contributions in California is hidden. Information is easily accessible at Cal-Access, a website run by California’s Secretary of State. For example, look here to see contributions to a special interest and then here for unfortunate consequences from political activity by that interest. There’s nothing dark about that money. Still, uninformed or lazy commentators all too often blame the state’s political problems on dark money*. But that’s not true.

If you’re still looking for someone to blame, don’t look at the US Supreme Court. The Citizens United case changed nothing about funding state politics in California. Contributions by corporations, associations and unions were permitted and happening in California long before Citizens United. If you’re still looking for someone to blame, don’t look at those corporations, associations and unions. They are business interests whose mission is to maximize revenues. For example, this year California will shower more than $100 billion on doctors, nurses, hospitals, medical device makers and pharmaceutical companies. Over the four years of the next governor’s first term, the state will spend more than $400 billion in their favor. Is it any wonder they are active in California politics?

If you’re still looking for someone to blame and you’re not already contributing to pro-citizen members of the California Legislature, look in the mirror.

California’s Legislature is a co-equal branch of government. In fact, it’s mentioned in California’s constitution before the Executive branch. Historically only special interests paid attention to the legislative branch but last decade California enacted two powerful political reforms (Independent Redistricting and Top Two Primary) that — when combined with financial support from political philanthropists — improved the power of citizens to influence elections and the prospects of pro-citizen legislators.

Pro-citizen state legislators are the principal defense against special interests—especially for non-rich Californians with children in public schools, family members on Medi-Cal, or jobs and wages influenced by actions of state legislators. While all attention is on the glorious growth of Silicon Valley, California has the highest poverty level in the country and the state’s unemployment rate is more than 10 percent higher than the national rate. Political philanthropists may get their income from capital gains, interest and dividends derived from businesses around the world but the vast majority of their fellow Californians get their income from wages derived from California’s in-state economy. They need legislators who will work to grow in-state jobs and wages for nearly 20 million private sector workers. To win and to gain power, those legislators need support from political philanthropists.

Non-dark contributions from political philanthropists can boost the fortunes of pro-citizen legislators.

Individual, non-dark, donations of no more than $4,400 per candidate per election are powerful. They can enable pro-citizen state legislators to offset the power of special interests, especially when they are part of a network of donations from similarly-minded political philanthropists. If you want to see tax dollars actually reach K-12 classrooms, an end to the de-funding of UC and CSU, health care spending actually produce better health, and an economic environment that actually produces better jobs and wages for the average Californian, you must support pro-citizen members of the California Legislature.

*Some money is still dark. For example, big and influential donors like the California Teachers Association can make unlimited contributions to political parties, which then spend those funds in ways likely to benefit those contributors in an untraceable manner. In addition, unlike everyone else, parties in California may coordinate their “independent” expenditures with candidates.

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