Report shows massive special interest cash flow

MediaNews Sacramento Bureau reporter Steve Geissinger will report shortly about a new study of California campaign finances, which shows that 2001 restrictions on direct contributions to candidates has led to a massive outpouring of cash into unchecked, special interest-led efforts.

The story will move on-line within minutes but here’s an advance look:

By Steve Geissinger/Mercury News Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – One of the most extensive campaign finance studies in state history showed today that when voters restricted direct contributions to candidates in 2001, special-interest donations flowed around that curb, swelling into an unchecked, largely undetected $88 million torrent.

The study, compiled by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, showed indirect contributions to legislative candidates _ from special interests _ shot up from $376,000 to $23.5 million, or by 6,144 percent, through the 2006 races.

Indirect donations from wealthy groups to statewide candidates increased from $526,000 to $29.5 million, or by 5,502 percent, during the five-year period.

California is in another election cycle that will boost the figures by tens of millions of dollars, according to the FPPC.

Commission Chairman Ross Johnson said that “the astounding increase in independent expenditures benefiting candidates for state office is clearly thwarting the will of the people to limit campaign spending.”

The FPPC, the state’s top political campaign watchdog, released the report as the board began a hearing on how to address the skyrocketing donations to independent-expenditure committees.

Proposition 34 capped individual contributions to candidate-run funds at $3,600 per election.

Monied stakeholders began donating instead to independent campaigns to elect certain candidates. The study showed they have been successful in affecting the outcome of Senate and Assembly races much of the time, often outspending the candidates themselves.

But tracking the independent campaign contributions as they occur is difficult, despite current reporting requirements and Internet posting on a state Web site.

The report showed the top 10 groups that have funded the biggest independent-expenditure committees, with contributions totaling more than $33 million, include Indian tribes with gambling casinos, the California Teachers Association, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and labor unions.

Johnson, a former lawmaker, said he is seeking a way to use existing law to force greater disclosure of the contributions so the public will have a better understanding of who is backing who, how much they are pumping into the effort , and for what reason.

Campaign finance reform advocates, who support the FPPC effort, said the contributions provide powerful groups undue influence over issues. As a result, they said, legislation and ballot propositions dealing with donations to campaigns remain one of the most contentious issues in Sacramento.

Contact Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@bayareanewsgroup.com or 916-447-9302.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen