© 1997 San Jose Mercury News
April 12, 1997

Leaders try to nudge campaign finance reporting into computer age

BY MARY ANNE OSTROM Mercury News Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO -- More than two decades ago, fed-up California voters said it was time state candidates made public the sources of their campaign money. Voters got a monumental paper-filing system requiring curious voters to make a trip to a government depository in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Sacramento.

On Monday, Secretary of State Bill Jones is launching a plan that finally begins moving California's campaign-information system into the electronic age.

Starting with the 1998 elections, campaign money reports for many statewide candidates and some committees will be available on the Internet. The plan by the Republican secretary of state can only ask for voluntary participation, pending changes to state law. But in that arena, too, there appears to be growing support among a once recalcitrant legislature to make online disclosure mandatory for all statewide and legislative candidates. Three bills are getting their first hearing next week.

The timing couldn't be better for proponents, who say online access will help respond to the growing public cynicism about the links between politicians and their money.

Fundraising scandals in Washington have topped the news since November. California's own Republican and Democratic party leaders recently sued to overturn last fall's popular Proposition 208, which creates first-ever statewide fund-raising caps. And many other states, as diverse as Maryland, Louisiana and Oklahoma, are moving ahead faster than California to adopt electronic filing.

"I happen to feel full disclosure is one of the best methods of campaign finance reform we can have," said Jones in an interview Friday. "Instantaneous access for the public and press will go a long ways to make sure the system of elections in California remains open and fair."

Power of status quo

But, if recent history is any guide, getting the state Legislature to put its money where its mouse is will not come easy.

Partisan politics, fear of contributors being harassed or their names sold for commercial purposes, free-market concerns of software providers, and complaints the cost could hurt grass-roots candidates all have been used to sideline nearly a half dozen legislative proposals since 1995.

"I think the environment is different," said Robert M. Stern, executive director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a non-profit group that advocates campaign reforms.

"It's hard to argue against disclosure anymore when everyone who's against campaign reforms (such as Proposition 208) says we should have more disclosure," Stern added. "This is about the best form of disclosure, putting it on the Internet and allowing citizens to get access."

Jones, who himself has been criticized for moving too slowly on a voluntary plan, said Friday that this nearly $50,000 demonstration project will show the public and politicians it's workable. He said he will count on peer pressure and the media to convince candidates to participate.

For the 1998 elections, Jones plans to post on the Internet access for filings from all constitutional officers and possibly legislative candidates. His office is working with SDR Technologies Inc. of Agoura Hills, which has set up electronic systems in several states, to design the breadth of the voluntary project.

In other places, including San Francisco, SDR has given away software to encourage participation, but Jones refused to discuss software arrangements until Monday. Also for 1998, Jones expects to include reports of "independent expenditure committees" and of contributions filed close to Election Day.

If Proposition 208 survives its legal challenges, independent expenditure committees -- special interest groups not connected to any candidate and whose spending cannot be legally constrained -- are expected to play a much bigger role in financing California campaigns. Such committees in the past have financed notorious last-minute hits.

Private momentum

And for the first time last November, the non-profit California Voter Foundation -- funded by newspapers including the Mercury News and other media outlets -- published online late contribution reports of $10,000 or more.

Through that Internet site, several reporters discovered and wrote about Gov. Pete Wilson's last-minute $700,000 infusion of cash to Republican legislative candidates.

Jones is also a sponsor of one of three bills up for hearings next week calling for mandatory online disclosure to be fully implemented for the November 2000 elections.

Despite bipartisan support, hurdles remain. A hefty two-thirds majority of the Assembly and Senate is needed to amend the voter-approved Political Reform Act of 1974.

Inter-party bickering persists that could result in a Jones-sponsored bill going up against a Democratic version pushed by Senate president pro tem Bill Lockyer, D-Hayward. And an Assembly effort, authored by Jim Cunneen, R-Campbell, contains provisions designed to protect contributors from harassment, but which critics contend violate the First Amendment.

Cunneen said earlier this week he would not let electronic filing die over that and free-market issues. He agreed that Senate proposals to omit residential addresses in the online version would solve the harassment issue. And Stern said the Federal Election Commission has successfully prosecuted people who have tried to sell contribution lists.

But questions over the cost and even whether the government should provide the software for free remain. One Senate bill mandates electronic filing only if software is available for less than $100, something software companies and Republicans say impinges on the free market.

Reams and reams

Amid all the hand-wringing, last year the secretary of state received a record 550,000 pages of paper campaign contribution-related filings.

But a March survey, conducted by the Mercury News and California Voter Foundation, found that nearly 90 percent of the year-end reports filed by 1996 legislative candidates were printed by a computer.

Some statements were not available and in a handful of cases it was not clear whether a computer printer or typewriter was used. Only 15 non-computerized statements were submitted by candidates who raised more than $50,000 per election, the threshold that's contemplated before electronic filing would be mandatory.

"It is not asking much to have them send those computerized records on a disk as well," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation. "The remaining 10 percent can be data-entered."

San Francisco, which made electronic filing the law in 1994, is still working to create a permanent site on the World Wide Web.

Although Hawaii boasts one of the nation's most state-of-the-art systems, state legislators only passed the law after exempting themselves.

Said Robert Watada, executive director of the Hawaii's campaign spending commission, "Legislators have a way of being concerned for their own self-interest."

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