© 1996 The Sacramento Bee
Saturday, September 7, 1996 · Editorial

Mugging campaign reform

In the waning days of the legislative session, a Senate committee killed the most important campaign reform measure of the year, a mandatory electronic campaign filing bill. Three Democrats, two of them termed-out senators, Dan Boatwright and Henry Mello, as well as Senate Democratic caucus Chairman Richard Polanco, officially voted down the bill, AB 108 by Sen. Quentin Kopp, in the Senate Elections Committee. But Republicans in the Assembly, who'd saddled the measure with a poison pill, made the killing easy.

The bill required candidates, sponsors and opponents of ballot measures, independent campaign committees, lobbyists and major donors to file their campaign contribution and spending reports electronically. Had it become law, beginning in the year 2000, those reports would have been put on the Internet, available to anyone with access to a computer and a modem. Who bankrolls a candidate's campaign is crucial information that voters need to make informed choices. For the same reason, it's also information many politicians would prefer voters not to have -- or at least not to have in any quick, useful fashion.

Republicans in the Assembly initially opposed electronic filing. Publicly, they worried that donors to controversial candidates or measures -- the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187, for example, or Proposition 209, this November's California Civil Rights Initiative -- would be targets of harassment if the information about their donations were widely disseminated. To deal with those concerns, the Kopp bill was amended to delete home street addresses from the information provided on-line.

But Republicans insisted on something more. They added a provision that would have made it a crime to harass someone whose name had been obtained from campaign reports on the Internet, an unworkable overreaction to a nonproblem. It provided a convenient pretext for opponents such as Senate majority leader Bill Lockyer and other Democrats to kill electronic filing.

Legislators try to confuse the issue but the simple truth is that most of them are reluctant to let voters know how much they depend on tobacco, gambling, oil, gun advocates, public employee unions and other powerful special interests to stay in office. Some lawmakers -- Assemblywoman Debra Bowen and Assemblyman John Vasconcellos -- have put their campaign finance reports on-line voluntarily. Legislators serious about campaign reform should follow their example. There is no defensible reason why electronic filing should not be universally required, and no reasonable defense for those who voted to kill it this time. Shame on the Democrats who did the deed; shame on the Republicans who gave them the excuse.

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