© 1996 The Sacramento Bee
Thursday, June 6, 1996 · Page A3

Plans to go online with campaign-finance data pushed off fast track

Daniel M. Weintraub

On the fourth floor of a spanking new office building a block south of the Capitol, state workers scurry like rats through a maze of files holding millions of pages of data. The names and numbers that fill those volumes represent the oil lubricating the machine that is democracy in California.

Since 1974, when voters passed the Political Reform Act, every contribution of more than $100 to candidates for public office has been reported to the Secretary of State. Anyone with the time and inclination can peruse the reports and see who is putting up the money to elect the people who run this state.

The only problem is that to get a full picture one has to travel to Sacramento and sift through a mind-numbing pile of paper. That's a chore that can take days for even the simplest review and weeks or months for a more ambitious evaluation.

Now momentum is building for a movement to bring this valuable information directly to the voters via computers. Politicians would be required to submit their reports on computer disks, and the state would put the reports on the Internet, which links computers worldwide. Anyone with access to a computer and a modem -- at home, work, school or library -- would be able to see in an instant who was behind the campaigns in which they are interested.

Sounds simple enough. But two proposals to make this happen are stalled in the Legislature. Democrats in the Senate blocked one of the bills a few weeks ago. Then Republicans in the Assembly 10 days ago stopped a second measure that was written by a bipartisan task force and sponsored by Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican.

Assemblywoman Jackie Speier, a Burlingame Democrat who carried the bill for Jones, said she thinks many of her fellow lawmakers fear wider disclosure of the campaign finance data.

"There's a level of accountability that occurs when people have that information versus when they don't," Speier said.

Republican Assemblyman Charles Poochigian of Fresno, chairman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, insisted that the members of his panel who stopped Speier's bill are not afraid of disclosure. Rather, he said, they simply favor a more cautious approach.

"There's a tendency to rush to approve virtually anything that recognizes the fact that we're entering the information age," Poochigian said. "But there's a responsibility that goes with that as well. There's a responsibility to be sure that the information is not used in an improper way."

Poochigian said Republicans were worried that criminals might use the names and addresses in the campaign finance files to stalk people listed in the reports. They fear computer hackers might corrupt the data base or gain access to confidential records. They're concerned about the impact on the computer software market if the state requires all reports to follow a single format.

Supporters of the measure say all of these concerns are easily allayed and might have been fixed weeks ago. But Republicans, rather than listing their objections openly, simply killed the bill in committee without debate. Once reporters began inquiring about the issue, Republicans came forward with a list of grievances. Then they promised to amend a separate measure so that plans for getting the information on the Internet might move forward.

Speier said opponents are simply bowing to the inevitable. More than a dozen other states already are moving down this path. It's only a matter of time, she said, before California, often a leader in this field, joins the crowd.

"It's going to happen," she said. "They can dig their heels into the quicksand, but at some point they are all going to sink and we're going to have it. The public is going to demand it."

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