California Legislature Delays Electronic Filing

Politicians cannot be bought, as any politician will tell you. You may, however, be able to purchase some quality time with them, if you give a large enough campaign contribution. This is called "access," and it is one way lobbyists influence public policy to the benefit of their employers.

Unfortunately, the public's ability to know who's buying access, who's selling, and for how much, remains limited by an inconvenient, paper-based filing system that dates back to the Watergate era. Want to see who's the money behind the various ballot measures? You'll find out at the Secretary of State's office, but you'll have to rummage through two cardboard containers overflowing with disordered documents to do so.

Want to check which candidates are beholden to which industry, and for how much? You can, if you have a few weeks to index all the names, addresses, occupations and clients of all the contributors listed on candidates' reports.

And bring plenty of cash for gas, parking and copies. You'll need to personally make the trek to the Secretary of State's office in either Sacramento, Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Technically, the public has access to the information, explained Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation. But for all intents and purposes, the information "is hidden. It's just out of sight, out of reach to the public. And it's the one thing that voters are really curious about. You'll hear people saying, 'I wonder who's funding his campaign.'"

Alexander and many others feel they have the answer to creating meaningful public access: the Internet. Instituting the electronic filing of reports and maintaining a centralized database that could make the information available to thousands, perhaps millions, of interested people around the state, informing the public as to the relationship between money and public policy.

"It's the single most important thing we could do for campaign finance reform in California," said former acting Sec. of State Tony Miller, now with California Common Cause. Problem is, people have been saying just that for almost three years now--but not much has happened.

Jim Warren, a Bay Area computer columnist and open government activist, feels like he's butting his head against a wall. "None of the politicians officially opposed this," he says with a bitter chuckle. "It's just that none of them voted for it."

While many lawmakers say they support electronic filing, the Legislature has killed four bills that would have made it the law during the past two years. This despite the support of mainstream groups like the League of Women Voters and the American Association of Retired Persons.

Something just doesn't compute. In 1974, an overwhelming 70 percent of the state's voters agreed that politicians should publicly disclose where they get their contributions from. That was the vote on Proposition 9, an initiative sponsored by then-Sec. of State Jerry Brown and Common Cause. The resulting law was supposed to halt corruption and curb special interest politics in the Legislature.

But some would say it hasn't worked.

"Electronic filing is critical if we're going to have real public disclosure," said Ruth Holton of California Common Cause, who explained that a computer database would be "far more convenient, far more accessible. That's truly public access, as was required by the Political Reform Act 20 years ago."

It's not that the idea of keeping data on computer is revolutionary -- it's been floating around for, oh, a few years now. In California, thanks to a 1993 law authored by Assemblywoman Debra Bowen, a Democrat from Marina Del Rey, Internet users can track legislation. In 1994, Jackie Speier of Burlingame authored a bill to set up an advisory committee comprised of legislative staffers, political operatives, computer experts, software companies, lobbyists and public interest groups to explore electronic filing of contribution reports.

In February 1996, Speier introduced a bill containing the group's recommendations. But it was killed in the Republican-controlled Assembly Elections Committee in May. One concern raised was that electronic filing would release contributors' home addresses -- which are already public information -- on the Internet. Another concern came from a political software manufacturer who claimed that if the state provided free, simple software for filers, just as it now provides free forms to fill out, it would put her out of business.

Just two weeks after the Speier bill's demise, Assemblyman Bruce McPherson, a Republican from Santa Cruz, introduced his own electronic filing legislation. It was billed as addressing some of the criticisms of the Speier bill.

But the proposed "McPherson Campaign and Government Electronic Disclosure Act of 1996" was viewed by Democrats as a politically motivated hijacking of someone else's idea. McPherson happens to be running against former Assemblyman Rusty Areias to succeed Sen. Henry Mello in a race expected to be one of the most hotly contested in the state.

The bill was killed in the Senate Elections Committee on July 2. Two other electronic filing bills sponsored by Sen. Tom Hayden of Los Angeles have been killed in the last two years.

Paper 4, Computers 0.

"It's been a very interesting process," said Hayden's staff counsel, Stephanie Rubin. "And I don't know if anyone really knows why it has happened the way it's happened."

She blames the repeated failure of electronic filing to partisan politics and the ignorance of lawmakers who don't realize how easy and popular Internet access would be. Then there is the cynical view.

"Some people don't want the information to be accessible [because] it would be easier to do a statistical analysis of where the money is coming from," said Assemblywoman Bowen.

As proof of the demand for electronic filing, supporters like to cite San Francisco. In 1993, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance mandating electronic filing for all candidates raising at least $5,000. The California Voter Foundation and the Digital Equipment Corporation set up an Internet site in time for the March 1996 ballot, and in the first five months, the site logged about 10,000 visits, 36 percent of them for the campaign finance data. "It went very well," said the city's elections director, Germaine Wong. "I think most of the political junkie-types who like to look at this stuff love it."

There are about 15 states more advanced than California that already allow or require electronic filing, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics.

That may change. Earlier this month, out of the ashes of the McPherson bill, has come a nearly identical piece of legislation, SB 108, that includes as co-sponsors the Santa Cruz Republican, Sen. Quentin Kopp of San Francisco, an Independent, and Assemblyman Dominic Cortese of San Jose, of the Reform Party. Speier, a Democrat, is considering signing on.

Bowen, for one, has gotten sick of waiting for a law and has voluntarily put her campaign contributions on her own home page. She says others who decide to do so will be serving democracy, and cites the defeat of the tobacco industry-sponsored Proposition 188 of 1994 as an example.

"When people figured out who was funding [it], that helped them decide how to vote," she said. "I just don't see our politics as a state changing until we make this type of information broadly available, and people start figuring out where the power is concentrated."

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