© 1997 San Francisco Examiner
Monday, September 8, 1996

State Closer to Reporting of Donations on Internet
Bill would require immediate on-line filing of campaign finance reports

By Robert Salladay

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Despite fears that political donors may be scared away by too much public attention, the Legislature is poised to make campaign finance reports available on the Internet.

San Francisco already has one of the nation's more sophisticated Internet systems to publicize political donations and expense reports on local races.

But only a handful of states make such information available, and in California, trying to get access to finance reports has been a nightmare. The public must wade through a stack of documents housed at the secretary of state's Sacramento office or the offices of county registrars of voters. California's 1995-96 election cycle reaped $155 million in contributions - and almost every dime of it must be reported.

"During a regular campaign year, we might have a half-million pieces of paper floating around," said Secretary of State Bill Jones, a chief advocate of a new Internet-filing measure moving though the Legislature.

"Physically, it's almost impossible, given the size of California, to get that information collated and out to people," Jones said. "Technology is a solution."

As early as Monday, the Assembly will consider another in a long line of bills to require on-line Internet filing of campaign reports. Jones has already started work on a voluntary program, but the bill by state Sen. Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach, would allocate $1.1 million to set up a mandatory system.

By the 2000 primary, candidates, committees, lobbyists and initiative groups accepting more than $100,000 would be required to report their contributors on-line to the secretary of state's office, which would manage the Web site. The threshold would be lowered to $50,000 in contributions starting July 1, 2000.

And, significantly, the bill requires contributions that come within days of an election to be reported within 24 hours. By waiting until the last minute, donors can sometimes escape attention in the hectic time before an election. Putting the records immediately on the Internet means an immediate public spotlight, particularly from journalists monitoring events.

Because Karnette's measure, SB49, changes the state's Political Reform Act, lawmakers cannot amend the bill before the session ends Friday. First introduced by former Assemblywoman Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and then by Sen. Quentin Kopp, I-San Francisco, it has stalled before. But lawmakers now believe they're close to getting Internet filing passed by the Legislature.

"It is inconceivable that California, the computer and high-tech center of the world, has delayed putting campaign data on-line," Karnette said. "It's time we made it happen."

Part of the problem is that lawmakers don't like to reveal information about their political contributors. Raw information doesn't provide context, they say, and listing everything so publicly could open a donor up to harassment. An Internet user might see a contribution from a tobacco company, for example, and assume, perhaps erroneously, that the lawmaker always votes in favor of pro-smoking bills.

And politicians don't want to scare off contributors. The biggest fight over Karnette's bill was whether to include addresses of contributors, which is public information available on the paper documents.

Karnette agreed to remove addresses from the Internet site, but refused to take out the donor's home city, as some Republicans requested.

"I think the debate over SB49 has been a good example of a much bigger debate over balancing the public's right to know and the right to privacy," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, which has been pushing for Internet filing.

"People who contribute money know they do so with the expectation the information will be made available," Alexander said. "Most people realize that if you want to use your money to finance a public campaign, then you're going to have to be public."

The secretary of state's office is still working on how to present the information. The City's site allows users to do searches for specific companies and names and to add up the number of contributions in a specific subject area.

San Francisco became a pioneer in Internet access to campaign reports in 1993, when the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance making it mandatory.

"Certainly, the computer industry is very visible and active here," said Ginny Vida, acting director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, which runs the Web site. "And people think in terms of what the computer technology can do to educate the public and make available information to help people make informed decisions."

The California Voter Foundation Web site is at www.calvoter.org; the San Francisco Ethics Commission is at www.ci.sf.ca.us / ethics; the secretary of state is at www.ss.ca.gov; federal election information can be found at www.tray.com/FECinfo.