It’s time to improve access to influence data in California

The seal of California, depicting a bear, a gold miner, the Pacific Ocean and more.

The seal of California. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes, hurdles along the path to transparency can come down to one thing: a lack of funding.

This story is all too familiar when it comes to transparency in California — especially for Cal-Access, the system built to provide the public with access to campaign finance and lobbying data.

Sunlight has written in the past about how painful the system is for anyone trying to access information about who is paying for campaigns and trying to influence policy. Last year, we signed on to a letter with a dozen organizations asking for Cal-Access to at least allow for bulk download of the information it houses.

The initial response? Cost might be a barrier to providing such access. The California Secretary of State’s office, which runs Cal-Access, suggested accessing the information on CD-ROM instead, for $5 per CD. After Sunlight and other organizations pointed out the problem with charging for access to such crucial information about influence in government, California took steps to allow for bulk download of the data.

It was an encouraging change of course, but there’s still much that needs to be done to improve the system. Cal-Access lags in many ways when compared to even basic recommendations for the release of campaign finance and lobbying data. It’s something California Gov. Jerry Brown has called “outdated and cumbersome,” and the candidates in the upcoming Secretary of State election acknowledge it needs to be improved, if not overhauled.

That’s why Sunlight has signed on to a letter with the California Forward Action Fund and several other organizations supporting a proposal that would enable a much-needed overhaul to happen sooner rather than later. The letter asks the Governor and Legislature to include a $10 million loan in the budget to the Secretary of State’s office, empowering a swift and thorough update of Cal-Access. The loan would be repaid with revenue from the registration fees of groups that file lobbying and campaign finance data.

The letter also encourages the Governor and Legislature to appropriate funds and ensure resources for improvements to the state’s asset disclosure system, led by the Fair Political Practices Commission.

We hope to see these changes implemented successfully before the 2016 election. Improved access to data about campaign finance, lobbying and assets of government officials can help voters hold their elected leaders accountable for representing the people’s interests, not the interests of those who pay for access and influence.

Learn more in the press release and in the letter below:

Cal-Access – FPPC Joint Letter