The San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee have endorsed a lawsuit by the California First Amendment Coalition and MAPlight.org to open the state Legislature’s entire database of bills, votes and amendments to public view. The state currently allows the public to see only one bill at a time — in a form that makes it difficult if not impossible to analyze the information with computer techniques.
In a signed column on Dec. 7, Chronicle Editorial Page Editor John Diaz said:
It should not take a lawsuit to open the windows into the legislative activity within the state Capitol. These are the people we elect, operating with the money we provide them, to perform the people’s business.
But a lawsuit filed last week by MAPLight.org in Berkeley and the California First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael underscores the degree to which the California Legislature has been corrupted by arrogance and allegiance to special interests.
The lawsuit’s request is simple and straightforward. It demands that the legislative counsel follow the law by providing the public with access to databases it possesses on legislative records, including voting records.
Those records are available today, but in a limited and cumbersome way.
“It is ridiculous,” said Dan Newman, executive director of MAPLight, which has been pressing the legislative counsel to provide access to the digital files of voting records, bill texts and other records. “It takes incredible resources to pry something out of their hands.”
There is no mystery about why California politicians might be reluctant to cooperate with MAPLight. The nonprofit, nonpartisan group has set up an easy-to-navigate way for voters to track the connection between contributions and votes in Congress. It hopes to do the same in the state Capitol.
I have no doubt the group would find rich terrain in Sacramento. As readers of our editorial pages over the years know, one of my pet peeves is the tendency of legislators to fail to vote – a practice known as “laying off” or “taking a walk” – on particularly controversial consumer and environmental issues. Time after time, I have found a direct correlation between nonvoting legislators and the flow of special-interest contributions. In one particularly notorious example from 2003, legislators on a key Assembly committee were serving desserts to lobbyists at a private-home fundraiser (advertised as a “Night of Chocolate Decadence”) just before a bill to re-regulate energy came up for a vote. The bill died when 11 of the 14 committee members failed to vote.
As someone who has tried to track voting records, I know that the current site ( www.leginfo.com) is woefully incomplete – to the point of being misleading – on roll-call votes. Under the Assembly rules, members who missed a vote are allowed to “add on” after the outcome has been decided. And they do – I’ve caught them, and named names, over the years. Even more outrageously, hours after a measure’s defeat or passage, a member can change his or her vote from “yes” to “no” – and vice versa – as long as it does not change the outcome. Again, this is not a theoretical possibility. I’ve seen it happen – and reported on it.
Such vote-switching is not easy to document now. The leginfo.com site only includes the final (sanitized) roll call. I’ve been able to find them only when a legislator or aide – typically one who is outraged by the shenanigans over a bill he or she has been working on – provides me with a printout of the legislative record at the moment the roll call closed, and a bill is passed or defeated. It is subject to change before the public can view it.
“That is just scandalous and infuriating,” Newman said of the voting-changing. “It just shows the value of transparency.”
As much as I’m cheering on this lawsuit, which was filed in Sacramento County Superior Court last week, I hope the result will be online access to the full history of voting records. I believe that Californians should know which legislators are not doing their jobs – not voting on important bills. And I believe an elected official’s constituents should know whether he or she voted when a measure was still in doubt or “added on” – or even changed a vote – after the fact.
This lawsuit is against the legislative counsel, but the real culprit here is the California Legislature, which could fix this problem in a Sacramento minute if only it had the will. Public-records law seems to make clear that records should be available in their electronic format. If legislators have any question about the clarity of the law, they have the ability to change it.
On Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, suggested that a resolution may be coming soon.
“When there is no additional burden on government to turn over the information in a user-friendly format, we ought to be stretching and going out of our way to do that,” Steinberg said by phone.
This lawsuit needs to be settled. Fast. Its mere existence is a blight on the California Legislature.
On Dec. 5, the Bee argued that the database of legislative actions belongs to the public — whether the Legislature likes it or not:
If you want to know how your legislator voted on one particular bill, it’s easy enough to find that out. Look up the bill number online and follow the prompts that guide you to all the committee and floor votes taken on that piece of legislation. They will reveal which legislators voted for or against it.
But if you wanted to know something more, like how your representative voted on all bills related to air pollution or to teacher tenure issues or to auto insurance – well, good luck. Obtaining that kind of information could take days or weeks of research.
And if you wanted to do even more sophisticated tracking – to find patterns in a legislator’s votes that showed possible connections between campaign contributions from a particular interest group with a stake in legislation, forget it. It’s almost impossible.
The data is there to answer those questions, and it’s supposed to be public. But so far, the Legislature’s lawyer has refused to release it in a format that enables citizens to easily track voting trends over time or make correlations between votes and campaign contributions.
Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine has made print-outs of such data available, but refuses to release the electronic database used to compile the information. She claims that the California Public Records Act “does not require disclosure of the database itself.”
Political watchdog and open-records groups rightly dispute that narrow interpretation of the law. Two of those groups – MAPLight .org, a Berkeley-based group that follows money in politics at the congressional level and wants to do the same in California – and the California First Amendment Coalition – have sued to force the Legislature to give up its electronic voting records database. They argue that the law requires government to release public information in any format they possess.
A glance at MAPLight’s Web site (www.MAPLight.org) makes it clear why California legislators might want to block access to the data the organization seeks. Using an electronic database, MAPLight has collected and aggregated congressional campaign contribution and voting records in a way that allows the public to see with a click of the mouse which interest groups are the biggest campaign contributors to individual lawmakers and how lawmakers vote on issues that those contributors care about. No doubt some of that information will prove embarrassing to some legislators, but that’s no reason to deny the public access to it.
This struggle for basic information about how the Legislature functions ought to be an easy early test for Darrell Steinberg, the new Senate president pro tem. It’s absurd that the public should have to sue to get this information. Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass ought to order their lawyers to make the data available now. Who contributes to legislative campaigns, and how much, is clearly public information. How legislators vote is public too.
Moreover, the public pays for all the computers and software that records, collects and stores that information. Citizens own it and they ought to have access to it in any format they choose.