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.

Wolens's wife is Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller, a former columnist for the Dallas Observer, a sister publication of the Houston Press. But Wolens suggests the media 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."

However, some of his legislative colleagues are jumping on board for computerized campaign reports. One former opponent is Representative Jerry Madden, a Republican from Richardson. Now he is co-sponsoring an electronic filing bill with Representative Pete Gallego, a Democrat from Alpine. 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 Web site (election.dos.state. fl.us/campfin/cfindb.htm), visitors can run a sophisticated search of contribution information by simply plugging in the name of any elected state 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 Governor George W. Bush each gave Jeb Bush $500 last year in his successful run for governor of Florida. It also will show the former president gave $1,000 to the Florida Republican Party and donated an autograph valued at $50 to Florida state Representative Mike Fasano.

Enter 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 install the system for 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.

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

"I hate to admit that, but that's the way it is," Baxter says. What really distresses her is that many candidates use computers to prepare reports that are filed on paper, even though the state has easy-to-use, inexpensive Windows-based software.

To maintain a complete database of campaign contributions and expenditures, Florida 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.
In Oklahoma, the Legislature also resisted bringing campaign finance into the computer age. Lawmakers effectively overturned a year-old ethics commission rule that required statewide candidates and large PACs to file 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 contribution reports electronically. Of the 1,320 federal candidates in last November's election, only 44 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 Congressman Charles Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Antonio.

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 Governor Bush and Lieutenant Governor 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 be difficult. The ethics commission software is DOS-based, not easily transferable to Windows-based programs. The Bush and Perry files must be unzipped before they can be read.

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