© 1996 The Sacramento Bee
Wednesday, August 7, 1996 · Editorial

Let's retire the quill pen

The Legislature is taking one more crack at something that ought to be the most straightforward and uncontroversial of issues: electronic filing of campaign contribution and spending reports by candidates running for state office so that they can quickly be made available on-line to whoever wants to see them. Maybe this time lawmakers will be embarrassed enough to pass it, though one should never count on that.

Most legislators know there's no good-government argument against electronic filing. But many avoid it like the plague: They'd rather not have records of who gets what from whom quickly available for public scrutiny, particularly not if it's a large contribution from a special-interest group that has less than a shining reputation with the public -- a tobacco company, the trial lawyers, the insurance industry, the casino gambling industry.

If such contributions don't show up in the record until after the election there can be much less political damage to the candidate. And if records are not filed in a way that they can be quickly searched by name or category of contributor, so much the better.

Despite a strong push from political reformers, and particularly the indefatigable Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, legislators have found a rich variety of excuses to vote down several prior efforts this year: that the wrong people sponsored them, or that private software developers weren't treated fairly.

All those things are lame objections to what is the most important -- and simple -- campaign reform proposal of the year. It would make records instantly accessible to anyone with a home computer and a modem, or to anyone who can get to a public library, and make them available almost at the moment a transaction takes place. But the politicians would rather stay in the age of the quill pen and the dusty file accessible in only one office. Republicans killed one electronic filing bill in the Assembly in May. Previously a similar bill was killed in a Senate committee controlled by Democrats.

In the new incarnation of the proposal (SB 108), which is up for a vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee today, statewide candidates and initiative committees spending more than $100,000 would have to file electronically in the 1998 election cycle; all state office candidates and committees spending over $50,000 would have to file beginning in 1999. All those filings would be available from the state on the Internet. Lobbyists' reports, statements of economic interest and other documents required by the Fair Political Practices Commission would also have to be filed electronically.

The bill's sponsors now include Jackie Speier, a Democrat; Bruce McPherson, a Republican; Dominic Cortese, a Reform Party member; and Quentin Kopp, an independent. The bill also has the strong backing of Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican. You can't get a lot more ecumenical than that. Pass the bill.

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