Under the leadership of new chairman Ross Johnson, the state Fair Political Practices Commission has launched a campaign to shine light on the role of independent expenditure committees in influencing California elections. And quite a role it is.
Since the passage of Proposition in 2000, an ballot measure that placed strict contribution limits on the amoung candidates can receive from donors, independent expenditure committees have taken off as the driving force in campaigns for the Legislature and other state offices. These committees can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, as long as they do not coordinate their activities with the candidates they are supporting.
Tracking the activities of IEs, as they are known, has always been laborious. Now the FPPC has created a one-stop site that reporters, bloggers, political activists and just plain concerned voters can use to see who's providing the money behind who in local campaigns. You can check today, for instance, and see that independent groups have thus far spent $180,000 on behalf of former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley in the 23rd Senate District primary, but only $7,000 on behalf of her opponent, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine.
The tool will be particularly useful for political observers in Ventura County in the fall, when it's likely that IE's will spend millions in the high-profile 19th Senate District campaign between former Assembly members Hannah-Beth Jackson and Tony Strickland.
Johnson is also pushing to find regulatory steps the commission can take to make the activities of independent expenditure committees more transparent. One great idea: requiring them to provide the name of a real person who can be contacted to account for any given group's activities.
Given that IE's are responsible for most of the dirtiest, nastiest campaign activities, a heightened level of accountability would be welcome. It's too easy now for candidates to simply shrug their shoulders and disavow the sleaze campaigns launched on their behalf, saying they have nothing to do with them. Someone needs to accountable.