© 1997 Orange County Register
September 7, 1997

Bill Would Put Funding Reports on Internet

By Daniel M.Weintraub
Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It's been almost 25 years since California voters passed the Political Reform Act, a measure designed to limit corruption by requiring full disclosure of the money politicians raise and spend on their campaigns.

In the next few days, the Legislature may bring that law into the computer age, making it useful for the first time to people from every corner of this vast state.

The theory behind campaign disclosure is that sunlight acts as a disinfectant, killing the political germs that grow on a democracy. If voters know who is giving money to campaigns, the theory goes, then lawmakers might be less likely to put the interests of their contributors over those of their constituents.

In practice, however, the Political Reform Act has generated so much information that it is overwhelming. Every election year, hundreds of candidates file thousands of pages of reports listing contributions so numerous that no person can possibly make sense of them all.

Even if someone had the energy and the patience to undertake that daunting task, gaining access to the documents is difficult.

Candidates file one copy of their reports with the registrar of voters in their county and another with the secretary of state. So if Orange County voters want to know who is giving money to local legislators, they must go to the county offices in Santa Ana during business hours and inspect the reports. To learn how much money a certain interest group, say labor unions or the Irvine Co., is giving to lawmakers across the state, you've got to go to Sacramento.

All this might soon change. The Assembly is scheduled to vote this week on Senate Bill 49, which would require candidates who raise more than $50,000 to file their disclosure reports on a computer disk. The same requirement would apply to major contributors, lobbyists and their employers.

The secretary of state then would make this information available on the Internet. Anyone with access to a computer and a modem could dial in and see the data, any time of the day or night. An activist with a bit of know-how could see at a glance who was backing the candidates in a given district, or anywhere in the state.

''Voters need to be able to make informed choices,'' says Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit group that encourages citizen involvement in politics. ''There's no piece of information that can better inform a voter than knowing where a candidate's campaign contributions are coming from.

''We live in a capitalist democracy, where people speak with their dollars. The public needs to be able to look at that kind of political speech before they cast their ballot.''

Five of Orange County's seven Assembly members told me last week that they intend to vote for the bill. One Republican Bill Morrow of Oceanside, who represents much of south Orange County wasn't sure.

Republican Dick Ackerman of Fullerton opposes the idea, saying the $1 million annual expense would be a waste of taxpayers' money. ''There's no need for it,'' Ackerman said last week. ''Where is this overwhelming outcry from the public that you need to have this done? I've had zero calls to my office. The people who generally need this information are the media and your opponent in a race, and they all get it. They have no trouble getting the information.''

But supporters of the measure, including Secretary of State Bill Jones and many members from both major political parties, say the public will use the information once they know it's available.

''This gives us a chance,'' Alexander said, ''to finally achieve what the voters set out to achieve when they enacted the Political Reform Act in 1974.''

Daniel M. Weintraub can be reached at (714) 664-5050, Ext. 1499. E-mail him at dweintrau@AOL.com