© 1997 New York Times
August 14, 1997

Once Again, California Debates Putting Campaign Donors Online

By Rebecca Fairley Raney

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In a climate where voters are crying for campaign reform, California legislators are debating for the seventh time in three years whether to give voters a way to get easy answers about candidates' campaign contributions online.

Even if the bill to put the data online passes, California would come late to the electronic filing game. More than a dozen other states have passed laws in the last year that require candidates to make information easily accessible by filing the information online or on diskette, or are phasing in electronic filing systems.

To those who favor digital disclosure, the political fighting that has repeatedly killed the California bills is making the high-tech state a laughingstock.

"It's ironic that we're the cradle of the digital revolution and that our state may be dragging its feet on this," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the non-profit California Voter Foundation, which promotes the use of technology to inform voters. "If this bill doesn't get passed this year, it would be because our state government is not capable of accomplishing anything meaningful. It's about whether they have the capacity to get beyond their entrenched posturing."

The current California bill has moved further through the Legislature than any of its predecessors, but the momentum hit a hurdle this month when Gov. Pete Wilson's Office of Planning and Research stated formal opposition. Analysts cited cost and the risk of misuse of online data.

Backers of the bill, Senate Bill 49, say it would give voters a simple way to see the support base of their elected officials for the first time in a state where contributions and lobbying reports add up to $300 million in each two-year election cycle -- roughly $10 for every man, woman and child in California.

The author of the bill, Senator Betty Karnette, Democrat of Long Beach, told the Assembly Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendment Committee last month that easy access would keep campaigns honest.

"It is the single greatest campaign reform that we an enact," she said.

Further, Karnette said Monday, if the government doesn't put this information online, chances are someone else will - such as special interest groups with agendas. The ease of Web publishing, she said, makes it critical for the government to provide a trustworthy site for this information.

The bill passed the state Senate in June, and last month it was approved by an Assembly policy committee. On Aug. 20, it will go to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which will decide whether to spend $1.1 million to set up the system. If it passes the Assembly and if the Senate concurs on amendments, the bill is expected to reach Wilson for signing in September. If passed, California voters could call up contribution and lobbying reports in time for the 2000 election.

California candidates currently file campaign contribution information on paper, but the stacks are thick. For example, one report from a two-week period for the governor last year ran 1,200 pages. It's common for campaign and lobbying reports from one California election to reach a half-million pages.

But the notion of creating easy access is drawing fire from many directions.

Aside from cost, an Aug. 4 letter from the Governor's Office of Planning and Research cited this problem: "It is unknown whether transmitting campaign information on the Net would be protected from potential misuse on a permanent basis. We are concerned that due to the continuous technological advancements, the software used to prevent the misuse of data could become obsolete. . . . We believe it would be unwise to enact any new or experimental election procedures until our existing procedures can be properly reviewed."

Karnette said Monday she would work to persuade the governor otherwise.

In an Aug. 8 letter to Wilson, she stressed that the bill does account for data security. Further, she wrote: "I know that as mayor of San Diego you were instrumental in enacting a campaign finance reform ordinance for the city. It is my hope that you will reconsider your position and join the 22 co-authors in support of this reform measure. California is the home of Silicon Valley and today's technology is here to stay. With your help, California can again take the lead in showing the rest of the nation how we can pro-actively use this technology to the benefit if its electorate."

Other opponents are citing privacy issues in their effort to fight the bill-- a common argument for closing government records in California. They say providing the names of contributors and the cities where they live would make contributors vulnerable to stalkers or could cause businesses to be picketed.

The squeamish are not swayed by arguments that this information is already public, and that no one knows of instances in which contributors have been stalked or picketed.

In fact, Karnette has already compromised on the privacy issue. She agreed to strike the street addresses of contributors online. Now, some members are asking that contributors' cities of residence be struck as well -- which would make it impossible to detect the proportion of out-of-district contributions a candidate receives without shuffling through a mountain of paper.

Assemblyman Tom J. Bordonaro Jr., Republican of San Luis Obispo, said during committee debate last month that in small towns in his district, publishing a name and a city would be as telling as publishing a street address.

Further, he said, "Just because that information is available in hard copy doesn't mean that's a good idea." He declined to vote on the bill in committee.

The other strong concern is the cost of software for campaigns to provide the information electronically. Even the lobbyists are complaining.

"We support the concept," said Richard E. Ratcliff, who told the Assembly committee last month that he was speaking on behalf of lobbyists. "Our concern is if the system is one that requires software to make it work."

He asked for a clause to include a cost-efficient filing method.

A supporter of the bill, Assemblyman Roderick Wright, Democrat of Los Angeles, spoke up about cost as well.

"We didn't want to create an environment in which a candidate had to have a computer," he said. He supports the bill, he said, "as long as we're not precluding people from running for office if they don't have a computer."

The bill originally included the stipulation that one filing program must be available for $99, but that provision was removed when the bill reached the Assembly because of Republicans' concerns about price-fixing. According to the Assembly's bill analysis, a majority of states with electronic filing systems either provide software or are planning to do so.

These concerns have come up repeatedly. Four different pieces of California legislation last year and two more this year contained provisions to start electronic filing systems, but none of those bills passed.

"If the Legislature doesn't get it out this year, I think they're going to be out of excuses," said Alexander of the California Voter Foundation.

Further, she said, if the Legislature doesn't pass the bill, people in the state's digital democracy camp are talking about taking online disclosure directly to voters on the state ballot.

Other state legislatures have worked out the problems with new systems. According to a report in July by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., six states have mandated that in the next few years, statewide candidates must file campaign contribution forms electronically with an eye toward publishing itemized information on the Web: Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Oklahoma and Virginia. Many other states have instituted systems for candidates to file by diskette voluntarily or are considering such systems.

Karnette believes the current California bill has a chance for two reasons: This is not an election year, and as more members of the Legislature are computer-literate, they are more likely to accept the concept of electronic filing.

Even so, Bordonaro sent this warning last month in the Assembly committee meeting: "I believe that this thing is a tiger that we hold by the tail. When it hits the (Assembly) floor, it's gone."

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