Sacramento's dash for cash

Among the hundreds of bills now on their way to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk is SB 3, proposed legislation to update the online system that allows Californians to see who is donating campaign money to whom, how much, and when. The bill was coauthored by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), and good for him; his measure underscores the woefully outdated and inadequate state of the Cal-Access system, which is operated by the secretary of state.

Of course, Yee has a special reason to press a bill dealing with the secretary's duties: He is a candidate for that office in next June's primary, along with fellow Democrats Derek Cressman (formerly of Common Cause) and state Sen. Alex Padilla of Pacoima, plus Republican Pete Peterson (director of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy) and Green Party member David Curtis (an architect). Other candidates may join the fray, and they must demonstrate to voters over the next nine months which of them is the one to best protect the integrity of the election system, a matter entrusted to the elected secretary of state under California's quirky style of government.

It is certainly true that Cal-Access as it exists today fails to meet the public's needs; it is an embarrassing relic of the early Internet era. But more needs to be done than merely to update the online campaign disclosure hardware and software. California law also needs to be amended to require timely reporting of donations.

Consider the most recent three weeks of the legislative session, which ended Thursday. Before voting on the final slate of bills, many lawmakers met a couple of blocks from the Capitol with interest groups and lobbyists who slid their credit cards through clever little attachments on the politicians' campaign smartphones. Voters might just like to know how much money was donated to incumbent lawmakers, for example, by the private prison companies or the correctional officers union before the Legislature brokered a deal that may put several hundred million dollars — money Californians agreed to pay via last year's Proposition 30 for better schools, not bigger prisons — in the donors' pockets.

Under current law, voters won't know how much end-of-session cash changed hands until January, long after the legislative debates ended and the bills were passed and signed. A candidate who wants to be secretary of state should be prepared to explain to Californians how he will make campaign reporting for Sacramento lawmakers and the governor as instantaneous as campaign contributing; and if he can't, why not, and what he can do instead. It's not sufficient to say that changing the law is the purview of lawmakers and not secretaries of state; leaders lead, and they get things done. So let's hear it: How will candidates to be the state's top election official put voters back in charge?

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