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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nonprofits' Legal Victory Takes Legwork Out of Following the Money

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2009 at 6:30 AM

click to enlarge Hey! We can see that ... now.
  • Hey! We can see that ... now.
Let's say you wanted to see how your elected representative voted on each bill in the state legislature last year. Unless you had his or her cell phone number handy, most likely you'd be forced to look up data for each bill -- you couldn't look by legislator, you had to look by bill -- on the state's legislative information Web site.

If you wished to search for any kind of correlation between voting patterns and donations to said legislator -- well, that's more drudgery. You'd have to scour the Secretary of State's Web page for monetary records, then painfully attempt to attach Donation A to votes on Bill B. In short, it was a shelp. But, thanks to a legal victory this week by a pair of Bay Area nonprofits, all of this information will soon be available on just one Web site.

Peter Scheer, the executive director of San Rafael's California First Amendment Coalition said he and Berkeley-based got "everything we wanted" in a settlement with the state's Office of Legislative Counsel. As demaned by the litigants, the state now provides an easily navigatible database in which one can follow the votes by legislator  -- and you can visit it here. Within several months, will juxtapose that database with data on political donations on its own Web site (as it already does with Congress).    

The California First Amendment Coalition and MAPlight (that stands for "Money and Politics") had complained that the trickle of information provided on state Web pages stifled the public's right to access. The Office of Legislative Counsel replied that the public right to access was fully satisfied by the status quo. The Bay Area nonprofits filed suit earlier this year in Sacramento Superior Court.

Asked why the state opted to settle on Tuesday, Scheer didn't chalk this one up to benevolence. "There was quite a bit of publicity when this suit was filed and it was not favorable," he said. "It was embarrasing. That was a large factor." In addition to getting the database they demanded, the nonprofits also received $65,000 in legal costs from the state.

As noted earlier, already keeps an extensive database on how Congressional representatives vote juxtaposed with who is giving them money -- and no one would say that Congress is a den of altruism and honesty. But Scheer thinks the inherently more small-time nature of a state legislature may result in more attention being paid to those who dig up iniquities.

"I think it will [make a difference] if it's used at the local level," he said. "People like reporters for some small community-based papers or bloggers or just ordinary voters are going to see votes which seem to be explainable only on the basis of the largesse of certain special interest groups. And they're going to say, 'Why?'" 

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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