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?

The Texas Ethics Commission also asks politicians and political committees to voluntarily file their campaign finance reports electronically on software the agency provides for free. About 12 to 17 percent comply at any given time, according to commission clerks. A handful of others, including Gov. Bush and Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, file reports electronically using different software.

The commission posts all electronic filings on its Web site (www.ethics.state.tx.us), making them available to be downloaded. For someone with only basic knowledge of computer software, however, actually reading the files may pose a problem. The ethics commission software is DOS-based and therefore not easily transferable to Windows-based programs.

House Speaker Pete Laney is among 31 of the 181 legislators who submitted their most recent reports electronically. Madden also is among them, but neither Danburg nor Wolens is.

Danburg uses the ethics commission's antiquated software as another excuse against mandatory electronic filing. She says she once paid a computer consultant $15,000 to try to make her campaign software compatible with what the ethics commission provides--a claim that befuddles commission staff.

"What you have are computer experts who are the only people who can do this," Danburg says. "How much do they charge an hour? A bunch."

When informed that the commission is aching to upgrade its software to a user-friendly Windows-based system, she asks, "Why haven't they already done it?"

Easy enough to answer. She and her colleagues in the Legislature haven't appropriated the money to do it.

Legislators have been generous with the buck, however, in turning the Legislature itself into a high-tech institution. All 181 legislators have Dell or IBM laptop computers, paid for by the state, on the tops of their antique wooden desks inside the Senate and House chambers. Legislators are also provided at least one desktop computer to use in their Capitol offices.

Although some legislators are quick to assert their computer ignorance when it comes to filing campaign finance reports, many routinely traverse the Internet--including an award-winning Web site called Texas Legislature Online (www.capitol.state.tx.us)--from their desks. The site, also financed by taxpayers, is a motherlode of information. One of its many features is a database containing the full text of every bill filed in the Legislature dating back to 1995. It also offers live and archived broadcasts (some with video) of many floor sessions and committee hearings.

All of it gives the impression that the Legislature is very hard at work and working very hard.

In addition, every legislator has his or her own home page, some with links to self-serving news releases. Other home pages have audio greetings.

"I hope you'll find this information interesting and helpful," Wolens says on his.

A sentiment, apparently, that applies only when the information makes legislators look good.

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