California may be the home of Silicon Valley, but for most of the last two weeks state officials have been unable to handle an elementary task of the digital age: putting information online about who is giving money and gifts to politicians.
The database is older than Facebook, and it’s the only easy way for the public to track special-interest influence in the Capitol and beyond. It lists donations and lobbying expenditures by unions, oil companies and billionaires, for example.
The system crashed Nov. 30 and has been offline for all but one 30-hour period since then. An aide to Secretary of State Debra Bowen said Wednesday that it may not be functional again for 14 days as she brings in emergency contractors to restore elements of the 12-year-old system and stabilize it for future use.
One open-government group called Wednesday for an investigation into the meltdown, alleging that California is violating state law by failing to post political finance information on a website the public can use.
“This is looking less like a freak accident and more like a systemic failure that would warrant legislative hearings,” said Derek Cressman, regional director of Common Cause. “Californians should not have to be patient when it comes to information on how powerful interests are lobbying our elected officials and funding their campaigns.”
While searching for a fix, Bowen’s office is responding to inquiries about political contributions in 20th century style — with staffers pulling paper files upon request.
“I am extremely frustrated,” Bowen said. “I care a lot about transparency.”
With the state in the middle of a budget crisis, Bowen said, her office has no money budgeted to replace the database, an expense she estimated at $10 million to $20 million. Bowen said she has other costly technology needs as well, including a proposed online voter registration system.
But several open-government advocates said that in the era of cloud computing, it should be relatively cheap to bring campaign finance information to the public.
State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) said Wednesday that he would introduce legislation to double fees paid by the state’s 1,000 lobbyists to finance proper maintenance of the database, known as Cal-Access.
“The crash of Cal-Access … means government is not being transparent or being held accountable,” he said.
Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale) said he worries that the problems could extend into 2012, an important election year and one in which access to the database will be critical for voters.
Fong, chairman of the Assembly Elections Committee, said Wednesday that he would ask Bowen to develop a contingency plan to ensure that the database is available next year, and he will come up with a plan to modernize the system.
“Next year is a presidential election year, and these kinds of problems will be compounded if they were to occur again,” Fong said.
Many of the 15,000 political committees in California, including those for unions and corporate interests, are required by law to file electronic postings when they donate certain amounts of money.
Representatives of those committees have been assured by Bowen’s office that they can send paper filings while the system is down. But in January, most committees have to file voluminous reports on fundraising and spending for the last part of 2011.
“It’s causing anxiety among the treasurers,” said Sheryl Z. White, president of Statecraft Inc., which provides the filing software used by many campaigns.