© 1996 Bakersfield Californian
December 1, 1996 · Opinion

If you can't beat them, track them

By Secretary of State Bill Jones

Secretary of State backs electronic filing

It seems to be happening with more frequency every election. Last minute attack ads funded by mysterious last minute contributions can alter the course of an election.

But, who is making these contributions? How large are they? Are they coming from individuals, labor unions, corporations, or political actions committees? Will they affect the policy decisions of the recipient of the donation?

If you are concerned that the high volume of campaign dollars contributed during the final days and weeks of a campaign might affect the policy decisions of a candidate once he or she assumes office, you are not alone.

During the closing weeks of the recent presidential elections, national and international scandals regarding questionable contributions obscured much of the policy debate between the candidates.

Partially in response to the issues raised at the national level, California voters approved Proposition 208 on November 5 to limit the size of campaign contributions candidates could accept in state races. My office is aggressively working to implement the provisions of Prop. 208, working together with the proponents of the initiative and other government agencies like the Fair Political Practices Commission.

In fact, we believe that the passage of Proposition 208 presents an unique and unparalleled opportunity for us to take a look at the way in which the voters receive important information about the candidates and officeholders who seek to represent them.

When I first took office as Secretary of State in January of 1995 I convened an Elections Summit to conduct a top-to-bottom review of our state's elections process, from a total quality management perspective. Just as we evaluated the elections system, and are continuing to do so, we must apply the same total quality management criteria to the Political Reform Act and the process of conducting campaigns in California. We must continually ask ourselves the questions: Are we providing the voters with the information they need and are entitled to receive? Can we provide it to them in a better and more efficient manner?

Campaign finance reform is only the first half of the problem regarding political financing in California. The other problem is the lack of public disclosure of contributions that are made.

Although candidates for office have been required to disclose the contributions and expenditures made by their campaigns for more than 20 years, the general public has not had sufficient access to this information.

Realistically, the only way for members of the public to review any of the more than one-million pages of campaign finance disclosure information we receive annually is for voters to come to my office in Sacramento and have our staff retrieve the information from an enormous wall of files.

This archaic, obsolete system gives the appearance of public disclosure, but the difficulty in retrieving the information renders the current information almost useless.

When discussing the system of campaign financing with newly elected legislators and candidates over the years, I have always given this advice: "If you think the contribution will affect any decisions you will have to make, don't accept it. If you wouldn't be comfortable disclosing the source and amount of a contribution to your constituents, don't accept it. If you are sent a contribution that you aren't comfortable receiving, return it."

Public disclosure of contributions can help to limit the influence of special interests. Increased public disclosure can only further that goal while providing voters with the tools they need to make a more informed decision about the candidates for whom they are voting.

That's why my office sponsored legislation last year to require campaigns to file their campaign finance reports to us electronically. Once we receive them via computer disk or modem, we can then post the information on the Internet for all California voters to see.

The legislature denied my proposal to increase public access to campaign disclosure documents during the 1996 legislative session, but when the Legislature convenes for its new session tomorrow, December 2, we will once again introduce the electronic filing plan. With a broad base of bi-partisan support, led by Senator Quentin Kopp (Ind. - San Francisco), I am encouraged that we will gain passage in time for the 1998 election cycle.

If you agree that additional disclosure will help curb the special interest influence in Sacramento, I urge you to support my electronic-filing legislation with letters, phone calls and e-mail to your legislative representatives, the media and to my office. Together, we can shed some light on what has been a dark abyss of campaign finance in California.

I would like to know what you think, please email me at BJones@ss.ca.gov, or send a letter to me at 1500 11th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814.

Bill Jones was elected Secretary of State in 1994. Prior to that, he served as the Republican Assembly Leader, representing a district that included neighboring Tulare County.

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