© 1996 San Jose Mercury News
Saturday, August 31, 1996

Senate Demos Kill Campaign Reform Bill
Disclosures, Contributions, Lobbying Data Would Have Been Put On-Line

Mercury News Staff Writer

The morning after President Clinton called for a new push for campaign finance reform, three of his fellow Democrats in the California Senate on Friday killed a bill that would have required on-line access to campaign and lobbying disclosure reports.

Those reports are the only way to get details on who's bankrolling political campaigns or who's trying to influence state officials. But they're also difficult to use. They form mounds of paper that can be viewed only in a handful of offices across the state, or they can be accessed by computer via commercial services that charge hefty fees.

A bill that had run a tortured path through the Legislature would have required that the reports be filed electronically and then placed on the Internet for free public access. But after the bill cleared the state Assembly on a 65-4 vote, the Senate elections committee - with only three members, Henry Mello, D-Gilroy, Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, and Dan Boatwright, D-Concord, voting - effectively killed it Friday, sending it off for more study.

"There are clearly some members who were looking for any excuse to kill this bill, and I think it's because, fundamentally, they don't want the public to have better access to their disclosure records," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the non-profit California Voter Foundation and a major player involved in the bill.

Larry Sokol, a consultant to the Senate elections committee, denied that, saying that while Democratic leaders favor electronic filing, they had concerns about details of the bill.

Though California is a world leader in computer technology, and other states and local governments have already embraced electronic filing, the Legislature has balked for years at bringing campaign and lobbyist disclosure information into the digital age.

With the wider access to information electronic filing would provide, proponents say, it would bring welcome rays of sunshine to dealings among lawmakers, lobbyists and campaign contributors.

The ultimate payoff, they say, is that with a brighter spotlight, dominance of moneyed interests will diminish as voters can get the information they need to hold politicians accountable.

The bill that died Friday followed intensive study of how to make electronic filing work, and it carried the unusual sponsorship of a Republican, a Democrat, an independent and a Reform Party legislator.

Today is the last day of the legislative session, and supporters said they will try again next year. The delay makes it all but certain that even if a new bill passes, there won't be enough time to implement the system for the 1998 election cycle.

Issues raised Friday centered on things like how the bill would mesh with federal law and whether it would create two different standards for access to records - one for paper files and the other for electronic information.

"The Senate Democratic leadership is strongly in favor of electronic filing," Sokol said. "(We) just want it done correctly and thoroughly."

Sokol rejected claims that opponents are trying to shield their activities. "I think that's a real easy and simplistic view to take," he said. "Some of those folks are convinced that everything the Legislature does, (members) want to try to keep cloaked in secrecy."

Assemblyman Bruce McPherson, R-Santa Cruz and a co-sponsor of the bill, wasn't convinced, and said the effort will continue.

"Campaign finance reform is a tremendous concern to voters in California," he said. "It's about time we move out of the stone age and into the information age."

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