© Los Angeles Times
Thursday, September 11, 1997
Trying to Drag Donation Data Into Cyberspace
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In the end, booting up to go online with their campaign finance reports was as easy for legislators as keyboarding in a password. A password like relax. Relax, no need to worry about the World Wide Web. Politicians can survive the Internet. California's Capitol is headed into cyberspace anyway; it's unavoidable. This state is the nation's high-tech capital, after all, where microchip pioneers discovered the new gold.
But fear of the unknown creates nightmares--about political contributors being stalked and harassed, hackers mischievously messing with data and bad guys stealing your most valued asset, your donors list. Finally, after three years of hand holding by Secretary of State Bill Jones, the Legislature overwhelmingly has decided to file campaign contribution and expenditure reports by computer so they can be placed on the Internet. So any voter with a PC can easily learn which special interests are bankrolling the local pol's campaign.
Now, the reports are filed with 19th century technology--ink, typewriter and paper. That produces 550,000 pages of election-year data that get buried on shelves in the secretary of state's office in Sacramento. The public has a right to know what's there, but good luck trying to find it. Under the bill shepherded through the Legislature by Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Los Angeles)--a tenacious 65-year-old former schoolteacher--the Internet filings fittingly will click on during the first election of the next century.
That's the plan, at least. But there's still a program bug: Gov. Pete Wilson. He hasn't decided whether to sign or veto the bill. Two of his agencies, in fact, are having nightmare about it.
Wilson's Finance Department is afraid of the $1.1-million start-up cost (in a $68-billion state budget). The governor's Office of Planning and Research fears that Secretary of State Jones--although a Republican and a conservative both by philosophy and temperament--is moving too swiftly into cyberspace. This needs more study, the planners say, apparently discounting a 1995 study conducted for Jones by a panel of outside experts that led to the bill's creation.
To assuage anxieties, Jones amended the bill to give the state Department of Information Technology veto power over the final online system. Also, to protect contributors from citizen harassment, their street addresses won't be listed on the Internet. Jones went through three legislative authors--each of whom was thwarted by partisan political games--until he handed off the bill to the likable Karnette, chairwoman of the Senate Elections Committee.
"People came to realize," Karnette says, "that the computer is here to stay, that swift information is the way it's going to be. It took people a little while to get used to that. . . . A lot of people didn't want to share information about their contributors." As late as last week, she had to fight off a behind-the-scenes attempt by Assembly Democrats to gut her bill and turn it into another study. "I told them the electorate wants this," she says.
Finally on Monday, the Assembly passed the measure on a 72-3 vote. It earlier had passed the Senate, 31-7. Today, the Senate is expected to routinely adopt Assembly amendments and send the bill to Wilson.
"This is the best form of campaign finance reform--full disclosure," asserts Jones, echoing a Republican mantra. Jones plans to personally lobby Wilson and hopes the governor will be persuaded by the unanticipated strong support of GOP legislators.
"He makes up his own mind," says Michael Sweet, a Wilson legislative liaison who has been monitoring the bill and will make a recommendation to the governor.
"He doesn't care if it's 80-0 if he doesn't like it." Wilson does have an independent streak. But normally he's not a masochist. "The fact that it has bipartisan support and is sponsored by the secretary of state--that helps," Sweet concedes.
Then the advisor adds: "Clearly, this is the way of the future. But the issue for the governor is, is this the way to go now and is it worth the money? I myself have not formed an opinion."
In the privacy of the governor's office, when there are no aides within earshot, Jones can be expected to look Wilson in the eye and say something like this:
Look, Pete, I'm up for reelection
next year and could use this on my record.
And it wouldn't hurt your image, either, to be the governor who took
California into the future with some high-tech political reform,
who made these convoluted reports user-friendly for voters.