By Bob Hertzberg, Jim Heerwagen, Kathay Feng and Rob Lapsley
Californians face a presidential election year with a ballot full of important decisions to make. Timely information and transparency will be essential to making good decisions, but one key tool, the state’s official website responsible for tracking campaign contributions, is outdated and starting to break down just as we enter our election season.
For example, last week the system went down on a critical filing deadline, frustrating filers, journalists and everybody else trying to follow campaign developments. The Cal-Access website was inaccessible to many from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, and it came fully back online only six hours ahead of a deadline for campaigns and other political committees to disclose how much money they raised and spent in the previous three months.
First built in 2000 when it led the nation, Cal-Access is now an antiquated, user unfriendly online system that is unstable and prone to outages — it once went down for three weeks — and even when it’s up and running, it is difficult to navigate. In the state that is home to Silicon Valley, it was created four years before Facebook and seven years before Apple introduced the iPhone — and it has not been significantly upgraded since.
We can do better in California, and we should do better. That’s why we have joined together to pass Senate Bill 1349, legislation that would remake the Cal-Access system and turn it into a modern, state-of-the-art database that once again leads the nation.
The free flow of information is crucial to citizen engagement and a healthy democracy. And when it comes to campaign and lobbying disclosures, the public has a right to know what is going on in a timely way.
SB 1349 provides a sensible framework. It establishes guidelines for the project, including creating a system that is data driven, rather than form based, and adhering to prevailing standards for search and open data.
The legislation prescribes using cost-effective, streamlined and innovative information technology to deliver an improved system faster. And, it calls for a system that permits future compatibility with local campaign finance data. Passing the legislation is the first step to a process that will take some time; a major upgrade will take a year or longer. So we should get started.
The list of supporters runs long, and it includes Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the California Business Roundtable and the business community, labor groups, California Common Cause, the California League of Women Voters and proponents of the Voters’ Right to Know Act initiative, who sought to replace the current Cal-Access system as part of a package of reforms but opted to quit gathering signatures when SB 1349 was introduced in March.
The initiative’s proponents had made their point: There is strong, broad-based, grassroots support for this reform. And under recent changes to the initiative process, they had the opportunity to pull the plug on the initiative as late as this spring and let the legislative process take over.
That’s what this coalition of good government advocates agreed to do, and it would be a shame, frankly, if the Legislature didn’t follow through and finish the job. The goal of 2015’s Ballot Initiative Transparency Act, which made several changes to the initiative process, was to help harmonize the initiative and legislative processes and avoid unnecessary clutter on the November ballot.
SB 1349 is one of the first tests of this new approach. Why go to the ballot for something that would pass overwhelmingly? Why doesn’t the Legislature just fix it?
Gov. Jerry Brown, a former secretary of state, has said the system is “outdated and cumbersome — (and) needs upgrading,” and Padilla, the current secretary of state, calls it “a Frankenstein monster of code.”
Enough is enough. It is time to act. It’s time to bring California’s Cal-Access system up to speed.
State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, is the author of SB 1349. Jim Heerwagen is the chief proponent of the Voters’ Right to Know Act initiative. Kathay Feng is executive director of California Common Cause. Rob Lapsley is president of the California Business Roundtable.
This op-ed appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News on May 5, 2016.