© San Jose Mercury News
Wednesday, October 15, 1997


Californians will gain easy, computerized, access to political donor records
Law opens window on campaign finances

IT'S about time.

After three years, the Legislature and Gov. Wilson have enacted a law that will shed digital sunlight on who gives what to whom in state campaigns.

In the state that is birthplace to the silicon chip, it is surprising that it took so long to require that campaign finance records be available on the Internet. We can only hope that the extra time spent on passage of SB 49 will ensure that the state got it right.

This has been a good year for the digital disclosure movement, with a dozen other states, in addition to California, passing legislation. Seventeen states already have various forms of electronic filing programs online or in process.

But California's system is expected to be one of the broadest and best-funded, requiring disclosure of more information than is mandated by most other states and allocating $1.1 million for the program. And the Legislature managed to overcome privacy concerns, writing the law so that donors' street addresses will not be published.

Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that has played a key role in the push for online disclosure, says the new law ``catapults California from the back seat of the digital disclosure movement to the head of the pack.''

The bill, penned by Sen. Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach, and passed by large margins in both chambers of the Legislature (31-2 in the Senate and 73-3 in the Assembly) was signed by Gov. Wilson last weekend.

It requires, beginning in the election year 2000, electronic filing of campaign finance records by all statewide and legislative candidates who raise or spend $50,000 and by all other political entities -- parties, PACs, lobbyists, donors and slates -- that file with the secretary of state.

In addition, candidates and committees may voluntarily file electronically for posting on the Internet in the 1998 elections. That voluntary system will be a test -- both of the system and of the players' willingness to make it work.

Campaign financing is complex, but if SB 49 is put in place as envisioned, getting the information will be as easy as entering a query into a computer search engine. That's miles ahead of driving to Sacramento to thumb through thousands of paper files before making copies at a dime a page.

When the system is up, a user will be able to sign on to his home computer, type in a simple Web site address and enter a query. Anyone with a computer and a modem can tap in.