Ignorance is bliss

Two supposed champions of open government are pushing hard to keep campaign finance records off the Internet. What don't they want you to know?

Moreover, neither faxing nor having copies mailed ensures quick receipt. A lag of several weeks can be expected during times when the agency receives the most requests for reports. Crunch time occurs around the due dates for all reports and the days leading up to an election.

Basically, the delay is longest when the information is at its freshest and most relevant. And the cost is highest when the report is at its thickest and most revealing.

Reports filed electronically, on the other hand, could be posted on the Internet moments after they're received and be available at zero cost to the person wanting to view them.

Danburg says she's worried about the poor. Not the poor who'd have to shell out several hundred bucks to find out who's financing political campaigns, but rather the poor who seek to become legislators. Mandatory electronic filing sets up an additional barrier, she says, for "homegrown, grassroots, and salt-of-the-earth" people to run for public office.

There are other barriers against the poor running for the Legislature. The biggest is that the job pays a mere $7,200 a year and requires takers to spend at least five months every two years in Austin, away from their "real" jobs. Poor people can't afford to run for the Legislature because, well, they might win. Danburg's concern, virtuous as it sounds, is for people who hardly exist.

"I have no problem saying statewide candidates ought to file electronically," says Danburg, who is willing to vote for a mandatory electronic filing bill as long as it does not apply to her and other legislators. Statewide candidates, she figures, should have no problem complying with electronic filing requirements since their big-budget campaigns already are high-tech.

"But it's almost impossible for the poor guy to comply," she continues. "I'm absolutely not trying to hide information. But I'm not going to put systems in place that benefit the rich elite."

Danburg's lofty argument, however, is based on a fictitious premise. Poor candidates, assuming there are any, likely would not have to comply with the requirements. An electronic filing bill already proposed by Sen. Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth exempts candidates who expect to raise or spend less than $5,000 in their races. Some supporters of the bill are willing to increase that limit in exchange for passing something.

Suzy Woodford, director of Common Cause Texas, heaves a heavy sigh before reeling off the list of exceptions, a rhetorical exercise she has practiced several times. She runs through them fleetly and in a tone that exaggerates her exasperation.

"I'm basically just really sick of hearing all the excuses," says Woodford, who, as an advocate for government ethics, often resorts to histrionics to make her point.

Woodford has heard plenty of excuses from Danburg, whom Common Cause honored in 1996 with its Star of Texas Public Service Award. The year before, Danburg had co-sponsored a law that laid out stringent campaign finance rules for Texas judges and judicial candidates. According to the banquet invitation, Danburg was honored "for being a true champion of campaign finance and election reform." Woodford chortles now after reading those words.

Danburg, who points to an array of campaign finance reform bills she is sponsoring this session as proof that she remains a champion of the cause, has other ideas for getting contribution information on the Internet. She says she has no problem with the ethics commission electronically scanning the paper reports and posting those on its Web site. That would make the reports easier to obtain, but it still would be difficult to analyze overall trends and patterns.

Anyone wanting to run a sophisticated computer-aided analysis of the data would have to undertake the time-consuming task of re-entering every contribution into a database. "Scanning is a way of disguising the data, because it can't easily be sorted and searched," Smith of Public Citizen says.

Danburg also says she has no problem with the commission manually entering the data from the paper reports, contribution by contribution. That could result in a comprehensive database that is easy to search, but the data entry would be expensive and take time. Reports would not be available immediately after they were filed.

"That's fine, Debra," says Woodford, speaking as if Danburg is within earshot. "You sponsor the bill to appropriate all the necessary funds that the ethics commission would need to punch in George W. Bush's five bajillion-page report. We'll have to have a much larger facility and staff over there if they are going to make this information available in a timely way."

As if Woodford weren't irritated enough, another recipient of Common Cause's annual public-service award also is opposed to mandatory electronic filing. The organization recognized Steve Wolens in 1997 "for his uncommonly dedicated sponsorship of open government legislation and his determination to shine the light on what elected and appointed officials are doing in your name."

Wolens has been one of the Legislature's strongest advocates for bringing the government's business out into the open. Already this session, he has accepted praise for his bill that closes a loophole in the state's open-meetings law allowing public bodies to hear briefings from their staffs in private. But when it comes to shining a brighter light on public officials' campaign business, Wolens withdraws.

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