In the clamor of a presidential race, which this year is even more distracting because of a clamorous and vulgar talking yam, a lot of important information gets drowned out that ought to be part of the presidential race in the first place.
For example, the good folks at the Brennan Center have been studying the effect of the era of deregulated influence-peddling on local elections. Now, it long has been axiomatic around this she been that the real mischief gets done at the lower levels of government because subletting public officials at that level is a much more economically efficient method of getting things done. The Brennan Center folks actually studied this phenomenon and, yes, it's even worse than you thought.
Yet the rise of dark money may matter less in the race for president or Congress than for, say, the utilities commission in Arizona. Voters probably know much less about the candidates in contests like that, which get little news coverage but whose winner will have enormous power to affect energy company profits and what homeowners pay for electricity. For a relative pittance—less than $100,000—corporations and others can use dark money to shape the outcome of a low-level race in which they have a direct stake. Over the last year, the Brennan Center analyzed outside spending from before and after the 2010 Citizens United decision in six states—Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts—with almost 20 percent of the nation's population. We also examined dozens of state and local elections where dark money could be linked to a particular interest. We found that, on average, 38 times more dark money was spent in these states in 2014 than in 2006. That's an even greater increase than at the federal level, where dark money rose 34 times over the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Compounding the problem was the growth in "gray money," spent by organizations that are legally required to disclose their donors but receive their funding through multiple layers of PACs that obscure its origin.
The examples are garish and horrible.
In Mountain View, Calif., the folksy-sounding Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition spent more than $83,000 in a 2014 City Council election that hinged on land use and housing policy. This was more than half of what all nine candidates spent, combined. Only after the election did the public learn that the coalition was funded by a PAC tied to the nation's largest property owners association, bent on heading off rent control. "They did not identify who they were and did not identify the issue that led them to support those candidates," Councilman Lenny Siegel told us. The newly composed council declined to pursue rent control.
A city council election? Their eyes truly are on the sparrow, and they'll kill it and eat it for lunch. And, as usual, everything can get worse in Arizona.
In 2010, Arizona's utility commission adopted a program to encourage energy efficiency by consumers and limit the electricity generated by the state's utility companies. This followed incentives in place since 2006 that encouraged homeowners to use solar power panels. Within a few years a half-million residents had joined the energy efficiency program, and at least 29,000 had solar panels. When two seats on the commission were at stake in 2014 elections, $3.2 million was spent on dark money ads. That was more than double the combined spending of all six candidates, and almost 50 times the $67,000 in dark money spent in the 2012 election, before the popularity of the solar program was clear. News reports have indicated that a major source of the money was the state's largest utility, Arizona Public Service. The commission has shifted from backing solar energy to signaling an openness to increasing solar's cost to consumers. "The public appears to look upon the commission with suspicion and mistrust because of your alleged campaign contributions," Commissioner Robert Burns wrote to Arizona Public Service.
Two seats on a utility commission. $3.2 million spent. What was that, Justice Kennedy?
"Independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption."
That's what I thought you said.