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Computer Users Seek Direct Link to Legislative Files : Technology: Assemblywoman sees her proposal as the start of a new electronic democracy. But some colleagues do not want to give the data away for free.

September 05, 1993|PAUL JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The ever-expanding reach of personal computer technology is knocking on the Legislature's door, seeking access to its huge storehouse of public information.

"I call this bill 'Thomas Jefferson meets the 21st Century,' " said Assemblywoman Debra Bowen, the Marina del Rey Democrat who wants to give direct, instantaneous access to the Legislature's electronic bill files to 15 million computer users who are hooked up to Internet, the grand, nonprofit network of computer networks.

With her bill, Bowen is leading the charge for legions of computer users demanding access to computerized legislative records that are used every day by lawmakers and their staffs.

These computer files, compiled at taxpayers' expense, are available outside the Legislature only to those subscribing to commercial information services at a typical cost of between $1,000 and $3,000 a year.

If she is successful, basic legislative records would be open to anyone with access to a computer terminal at a university or public library and to a growing number of individuals who can tap into Internet through their personal computers at home or work.

Such access would allow users to track any bill step by step as it moves through the Legislature--or falters along the way.

But Bowen's vision of a new electronic democracy is not shared by all her colleagues.

The powerful chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee, John Burton (D-San Francisco), said he is against giving away electronic records for free that two commercial services--LegiTech and StateNet--pay a total of $300,000 a year to obtain.

And the electronic access bill, which won Senate approval Friday, will probably go back to Burton's committee for review before it can be enacted.

"If somebody hooks up for nothing and uses it for a profit-making enterprise, they ought to repay the taxpayers," Burton told a reporter recently. "It's not a novel approach."

Bowen argues that the public has paid for the records and no charges ought to be required to provide universal access. "I believe that the public has already paid for the creation of this data by paying our salaries and the $25 million that it costs to run the legislative data center," she said last month at a Senate committee hearing.

Bowen and her staff concede that Burton's opposition to the bill could doom it.

Representatives of the two commercial companies say they would most likely continue paying, but they want to be sure they can get early morning access to the complete records. LegiTech is opposed to the current version of Bowen's bill, and StateNet is watching it warily.

Both companies fear that California may go the way of New York, which sells access to its electronic files in direct competition to commercial services.

However, both firms point out that they provide a variety of services to their California subscribers that will not be available through Internet, including campaign contribution records and legislative vote counts that can take days to enter the legislative computer.

Meanwhile, a small group of the bill's supporters--all of them members of Ross Perot's United We Stand America--has drafted a statewide initiative to guarantee access to the legislative bill records without charge if the Bowen bill fails.

One author of the initiative, known as the "Right to Know Now Act," is Kirk F. MacKenzie, president of a small Silicon Valley firm, ProHance Technologies Inc.

Using electronic mail, the group has generated more than 700 letters and cards in support of Bowen's bill, MacKenzie said.

The group has also drafted three other initiatives that would put new limits on campaign contributions, impose automatic state budget cuts when deficits seem likely, and make it easier to qualify initiatives for the ballot.

Bowen's proposal has drawn support from such varied groups as Apple Computer and the computer software industry, the League of Women Voters and Sierra Club, the Council of California County Law Libraries and California Common Cause.

The Legislature's sophisticated computer system allows lawmakers and their staffs to track bills and amendments. Bowen's bill would open the same information to anyone with a personal computer and a subscription to one of the services that provide access to Internet.

Want to know how a legislator voted on a bill? The electronic files would provide that. Does an amendment improve or gut a bill? Users could read the text themselves. Confused about what the language means? The records would include the official legislative analysis for each bill.

Generally, lawmakers favor improved public access, but several express skepticism that opening up the computer files will have the freshening effect that the bill's author is seeking.

"I think it is a great idea to expand the flow of information as much as possible," Sen. Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland) said at a hearing last month. "I hate to tell you this, but the average citizen out there doesn't know beans about what's going on up here and doesn't care."

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