© 1996 San Diego Union-Tribune
Saturday, May 18, 1996 · Page A3

On-line filing of campaign data debated
Detractors want to know who will pay for required software

Dana Wilkie

SACRAMENTO -- What started as a simple plan to put campaign contributions and other political information on line has evolved into a debate over a broader public-policy question: When government requires its citizens to communicate by computer, who should pay?

The impetus for this question is a plan by a Democratic state lawmaker and California's Republican secretary of state to require political candidates, ballot-measure committees and lobbyists to electronically file several reports documenting how much money they raise and spend. The information would be made public via the Internet.

Advocates say there are several benefits to the idea:

The downside, skeptics say, is that it would cost the secretary of state at least $550,000 to get such a system running and that there may not be adequate safeguards to protect campaign information from on-line sabotage. But perhaps most important, some people are already balking at a state-required software program for which the state wouldn't pay.

Democratic Assemblywoman Jackie Speier of Burlingame originally wrote her bill, AB 2546, so the secretary of state would provide the software to filers free, as do some of the 13 states and three cities that already have voluntary or mandatory electronic filing systems. The assemblywoman changed her bill, however, after a San Diego-area software vendor complained that state government should not contract with selected vendors and undercut other businesses with similar products.

"In an age when you're talking about privatization of government functions, why add a responsibility to the secretary of state that is already being well provided for in the private sector?" asked Sheryl White of Statecraft Inc., a supplier of campaign software near Sorrento Valley that hired a Sacramento lobbyist to argue the point.

Speier's bill now says that Jones must identify software that sells for $99 or less, though his office won't pay for it.

Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, a non-profit group promoting voter-education through the Internet and one of the bill's principal champions, thinks government should pick up the cost.

"The state shouldn't have a problem with using taxpayer money to pay for this if . . . (it) will help voters make more informed decisions," Alexander said.

Richard Ratcliff, an officeholder with a lobbyist-representing group called Institute of Governmental Advocates, agrees. Though lobbyists generally consider electronic filing "vital," he said, "it seems only appropriate that the means of complying with a (government) mandate be provided. Instead, what we have is a (requirement) that carries with it a potentially significant cost."

David Jefferson, a research engineer for Digital Equipment Corp. which introduces the world to new Internet uses, sees Speier's bill and the software argument in a broader context. To him, the legislation is just a first step along what will likely become a long road of electronic-filing requirements.

"Someday, we'll probably have to file our tax returns electronically," Jefferson said. "If the government requires you to file something electronically, it ought to provide you the software to comply." Who pays the software costs won't be the only argument when the bill comes to a hearing before the Assembly Appropriations Committee, probably next week. Assemblyman Dick Ackerman, a Republican from Fullerton who voted against Speier's bill in its first Assembly committee, will likely reject it again when it comes before the Appropriations Committee.

"The people who generally want that information is (sic) the media and people involved in the elective process, namely our opponents," said Ackerman, who believes he may have like-minded colleagues on Appropriations, which considers the financial impacts of legislation. "There are a lot of higher priority items that we need to be considering."

Jones recognizes the hurdles for the bill.

"I am concerned about the priority of this expense given the budget constraints this year," said Jones, who has made the on-line bill one of his top projects. "You have to make an exceptional argument for the urgency of the matter."

Current law requires political candidates and those promoting or fighting ballot measures to reveal who gave them money, how much they got and what they spent on a campaign. In 1994, campaigns for candidates and ballot measures filed with the Secretary of State 31,200 finance statements containing 524,277 pages.

By 1999, all state candidates and ballot committees would, under Speier's bill, have to report their campaign finances electronically. Incumbent office holders would have to report in this manner no matter how much they raised or spent. All others will have to report electronically if they raised or spent at least $50,000 in a calendar year.

In addition to requiring that campaign contributions go on line, Speier's bill would require lobbyists to report what public issues they're lobbying on, how much their clients are paying them and what the lobbyists spent on gifts and meals to lawmakers.

A comparable bill by Democratic Sen. Tom Hayden of Santa Monica failed recently in a Senate committee. Whether that spells trouble for Speier's bill is unclear; both she and Jones believe their legislation has a better chance of surviving because they've tried to accommodate the objections of different parties.

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