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?

Parroting the same rationale as Danburg, Wolens says he is concerned that mandatory electronic filing raises the price of the ticket for anyone wanting to run for the Legislature.

"It's not as if there's a great need to have it done electronically," says Wolens, 48, a House member since 1981. "We're still making disclosure. You just go to the ethics commission and get a copy."

A visit to the ethics commission to review Wolens' report yields some interesting information. He accepted about 300 contributions last year, adding about $160,000 to his campaign kitty. Not bad, considering he ran unopposed in 1998. Among his most generous contributors was a Southwestern Bell employee PAC, with separate donations of $3,000 on April 3 and $2,500 on November 21. Wolens is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, which handles bills related to telecommunications.

Wolens' wife is Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller, a former columnist for the Dallas Observer. But he shows little sympathy for the media when he suggests reporters have selfish interests in trying to make a big deal about electronic filing.

"Government can't help every newspaper reporter write their story," Wolens says. "I have not had one constituent write me a letter about electronic filing."

Some of his legislative colleagues nevertheless are jumping on board. Rep. Jerry Madden, a Republican from Richardson, once opposed the idea but now is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat from Alpine, to make it happen. It will be folded into an overall campaign finance reform bill, he says.

"If we're going to say disclosure is the most important thing, then let's disclose, and let's get that information into the hands of voters rapidly," says Madden, who sits on Danburg's elections committee. "The more information, the better, because then voters can make a more informed decision."

A Texas voter has to look to Florida to understand the benefits of having all campaign finance information immediately available on the Internet.

On the Florida Department of State's whiz-bang, rapid-fire Web site (election.dos.state.fl.us/campfin/cfindb.ht), visitors can run a sophisticated search of contribution information simply by plugging in the name of any state elected official, candidate, political committee, or contributor.

Type the name George Bush into a search field, hit enter, and in seconds the Web site responds that President George Bush and Gov. George W. Bush each gave Jeb Bush $500 last year toward his successful run for governor of Florida. It also will show that the former president gave $1,000 to the Florida Republican party and donated an autograph valued at $50 to Florida state Rep. Mike Fasano.

Plug Fasano's name into the search field, and the screen rolls an easy-to-read list detailing every contribution the Republican legislator received in 1998. It reports the name and address of each contributor, how much was given, the form of the contribution (check, loan, cash, or in-kind) and, in some cases, the donor's occupation.

Fourteen states, including California, New York, and Louisiana, require some sort of mandatory electronic filing of campaign finance reports, according to the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank that specializes in campaign finance issues. Florida's Web site is considered the model.

Sophisticated though it may be, it exists in spite of--not because of--legislators there. Former Florida Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, an elected official who therefore was directly accountable to voters, made the executive decision to put the system in place beginning with the 1996 election cycle. Ethel Baxter, elections director for Florida's state department, says the software was developed in-house, which kept costs to a minimum.

Because Florida allows anyone to opt out of filing electronically simply by signing a form, Baxter must rely on the good graces of officeholders and candidates. Only 30 percent feel so obliged.

"I hate to admit that, but that's the way it is," Baxter says. What really distresses her is that when the paper reports come in, many of them have been prepared on a computer, just not with the state's easy-to-use, inexpensive Windows-based software.

In order for Florida to maintain a complete database of campaign contributions and expenditures, it hires state prisoners to enter the data manually from the reports filed on paper. By using inmate labor, the state can usually post all contributions on its Web site three or four days after receiving the reports--a remarkably quick turnaround, Baxter says.

"This system works only because we make it work," she says.
The Oklahoma Legislature also resisted bringing campaign finance into the computer age. Lawmakers effectively overturned a 1-year-old ethics commission rule that required statewide candidates and large PACs to file their reports electronically. Legislators complained about bugs in the state's software. Marilyn Hughes, commission executive director, says most of the problems were worked out before the Legislature voted to thwart the policy.

"We're going to try to solve all the problems they had with it, come out with a better version, and hit it again," she says.

Like Florida, the Federal Election Commission asks--but does not require--federal officeholders and candidates to file their contribution reports electronically. Of the 1,320 federal candidates who were up for election last November, only 44 voluntarily complied, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonpartisan and nonprofit research organization that tracks money in federal politics. Of the 44, only one was from Texas: first-term U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Antonio.

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