SACRAMENTO — California's Capitol is not quite ready for cyberspace, it seems. Our lawmakers are wary of the World Wide Web, leery of going online with their most valued possession--their fund-raising lists.
Which is contradictory, if not plain hypocritical. Because for decades, the mantra of many entrenched politicians--especially Republicans--has been that the best campaign finance reform is "full disclosure."
Public financing of campaigns is an abuse of tax dollars, Republicans argue, and spending limits only help incumbents. Democrats object to limits on individual donations because the GOP has more donors.
The real answer, claim defenders of the status quo, is to just lay out all the fund-raising data for everyone to see. Let the voters decide whether some lawmaker is a scumball for, say, taking money from polluters and then voting to deregulate their industry.
And what better way to lay it all out than on the Internet? Citizens could sit in their homes--reporters in their newsrooms--and click to a Web site on a PC. They could browse around and call up a legislator's fund-raising report, download it and sort out the details. Take a look at how much money was given, for example, by tobacco companies. Then click to the vote roll call on a bill to raise tobacco taxes. Ummmm. . . Was this a payoff?
Voting records have been on the Internet for two years because of a bill by Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey). But the reporting of campaign financing is a relic of 19th century technology--ink, typewriter and paper.
In 1994, candidates filed a half-million pages of campaign finance data with the secretary of state. Public access meant getting to Sacramento--or maybe to a courthouse--standing in line at a counter and rummaging through stacks of crumpled paper.
That's about all the public access and "full disclosure" many politicians and their special interest patrons really want.
Two years ago, Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame) proposed making campaign finance reports user-friendly by putting them on the Internet. It seemed a simple idea in a state that had pioneered in cyberspace; a concept that, for the political community, was cutting edge and also good government.
Speier pushed through a bill requesting the secretary of state to develop a plan and authorizing creation of an advisory panel. New Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican, enthusiastically adopted the idea and appointed the panel. It recommended that statewide candidates and sponsors of ballot measures be required to file their reports electronically beginning in 1997, with legislators and lobbyists to follow in 1999.
"Electronic filing will give people immediate access to the political process and hold candidates and elected officials to a higher standard of responsibility," Jones said. But this was a goal, clearly, that had more appeal for some legislators than for others.
Jones "did the ethical thing," Speier notes, and asked her to carry the needed bill. He could have handed the plum to a fellow Republican. Unfortunately, the Legislature has not been as bipartisan. The measure now could perish in a puddle of petty politics.
There is an even more cynical scenario. For some legislators, political partisanship is just a handy excuse for killing a concept they fear.
Speier's bill was killed by Republicans in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. They protested that small contributors--perhaps shop owners--could be "harassed" by PC users who didn't like their politics; donors also could be stalked and become crime victims. All right, said Speier, keep donors' addresses off the Internet. Republicans raised another objection: Hackers could mess with the data and create "mischief."
The real story, one GOP leader told me, is that Speier is considered a Democratic "warrior. Willie [Brown] used to go after the Republican warriors. We're going after theirs."
Says Speier: "I am a warrior and proud of it. The bill was 'speakerized.' " But she adds: "The scamming is pretty ridiculous. They've set this up to fail. They truly don't want it."
The bill now has been "hijacked" by Assemblyman Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz), a moderate former newspaper editor who sees it as a plus in his tight Senate race. But Democrats control the Senate and aren't about to pass the measure with him as the lead author.
"He should give the bill back," says Senate Elections Committee Chairman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles). "He's cheating on the job by taking another person's work product."
This may be yet another matter that voters themselves will have to handle with a ballot initiative.