The paperwork on campaign finances for the 1998 California election already is piling up. By the time it's all over, the secretary of state estimates, candidates and committees will have filed more than 500,000 pages of data detailing where the money came from and where it went.
Disclosure statements are available at a limited number of locations around the state. They are perused primarily by opposition campaigns and by the news media. Not much of the data receives wide distribution. Many candidates like it that way. They would prefer not to have their major sources of funding publicized, especially if the money comes from controversial special interests. Effective campaign reforms, of course, would bring such information to light.
The obvious solution in the late 1990s is to file the information electronically and to make it available via the Internet. That undoubtedly is going to happen, uncomfortably soon for politicians but probably not as quickly as reformers would like.
Legislation to require the filing of campaign statements by computer bogged down in political bickering at the end of the 1996 session of the Legislature and then died. New measures to require computer filing have gotten off to a quick start in the current session, however, with a major push by Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones and bipartisan support in the Legislature.
Bills authored by Sens. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco) and Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) and Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-San Jose) appear on course toward a consensus. Generally, they require that all statewide candidates and committees sponsoring ballot measures in the November 1998 election would have to file their reports on computer diskette. The secretary of state's office would make free copies of the diskette available to the public.
Also, all contributions during the waning days of the campaign would be posted on the Internet so that the public could see which interests might be trying to have a last-minute impact on a campaign. Additionally, any campaign or committee could voluntarily file reports on the Internet.
For the primary election of 2000, all candidates or committees with contributions or expenditures exceeding $100,000 would be required to file online. In the general election of 2000, that threshold would be lowered to $50,000, thus covering all statewide races and most legislative contests.
Some reform groups want online filing made mandatory in the 1998 election. But state officials say appropriate software could not be developed that soon. Clearly, the state should not rush into online reporting before officials know it will work properly. But prompt public disclosure is critical to a fair and open electoral system. Lawmakers should pass a bill in this year's session.