Contributing Factors

Debra Danburg swears she'll defend your right to open government. But when it comes to Internet campaign finance reports, ignorance is bliss.

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 could 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 the poor who seek to become legislators. Mandatory electronic filing sets up a 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 because, well, they might win. Danburg's concern, virtuous as it sounds, is for people who hardly exist.

Danburg 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 Senator Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth exempts candidates who expect to raise or spend less than $5,000 in their races. Some bill backers are willing to raise that amount to get something passed.

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 co-sponsored a law with 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 points to an array of campaign finance reform bills she is sponsoring this session as proof she remains a champion of the cause. She says she has no problem with the ethics commission's 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 trends and patterns.

Anyone wanting to run sophisticated computer-aided research of the data would face the time-consuming task of reentering 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 the commission could manually enter the data from the paper reports, contribution by contribution. That would build a comprehensive database that would be easy to search, but the entry of information would be expensive and time-consuming. And reports would not be available immediately after they were filed.

"That's fine, Debra," says Woodford, pretending 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 opposes 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 government out into the open. Already this session he accepted praise for his bill to change the state's open meetings law. It would close a loophole that allows 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.

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's report shows he received 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 $2,500 on November 21 and $3,000 on April 3. Wolens is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, which handles bills related to telecommunications.

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