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Mystery Money Invades California

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There's nothing new about big money and California elections.

The eleven statewide propositions on next month's ballot have already drawn $336 million in campaign contributions, or about $25 per voter, assuming a turnout similar to that of 2008.

Interest groups such as organized labor, corporations, anti-tax groups, hospital association, and state employees, to name a few, have clearly identified themselves with their contributions.

In a few cases, individuals like Molly Munger ($33 million for Proposition 38). Charles Munger ($23 million for Proposition 32), Thomas Steyer ($22 million for Proposition 39), and George Joseph ($16 million for Proposition 33), have presented their names with their causes.

The attachment of individuals or organizations with campaign contributions is a critical component in the elections process because these associations allow us to understand who is behind what as we make our own decisions.

But there is a new development that flies in the face of transparency--the hidden contribution, and that strategy threatens to cloud the transparency that so many of us value.

The most recent poster child for political obfuscation is a group that calls itself "Americans for Responsible Leadership."

Don't look it up because the closest you'll get is a post office office in Arizona.

According to Maplight.org, an independent nonpartisan research organization that tracks the flow of money in the election process, last week Americans for Responsible" dumped $11 million into the "No On Prop 30" campaign to oppose Governor Jerry Brown's temporary tax increases. It put another $11 million for Proposition 32, the ballot initiative that would severely limit the ability of employer and union groups to collect campaign contributions from their members, which most people define as anti-union.

Think about it, $22 million late in a campaign buys a lot of television ads, and no one knows who's behind the money.

All this points to the serious flaw behind the Citizens United case, the decision where the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated any limits on campaign contributions. Whether this decision is wise is one issue, but the fact that hidden contributions can take place in large amounts at strategic moments is another.

If the democratic process is going to be hijacked, at least we should know who is doing it.

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.

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