Shining light on finances

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Sunshine is always a good thing in government.

That is why I have introduced a bill in the current legislative session that will bring an unprecedented amount of public access, accountability and openness to the campaign finance reports filed by candidates for higher office in Alabama.

House Bill 127 would require all candidates with contributions or expenditures greater than $100,000 to file their campaign finance reports in an electronic format prescribed by the Secretary of State.

Once filed, the electronic reports would become part of an electronic database allowing voters and citizens to search contributors by name and giving them a full picture of who gives and receives money in statewide elections.

When I served as deputy secretary of state and was tasked with helping to enforce Alabama’s campaign finance laws, it became obvious that voters have a difficult time solving the puzzle of which candidates are taking contributions from certain special interests and individuals.

With this bill, a few keystrokes and clicks of a mouse will give voters at home access to information that was once buried in the dusty back rooms of the Capitol.

In recent years, voters could only obtain such information by traveling to Montgomery, searching through hard copies of filed reports and paying $1 a page to have them copied.

Recognizing the difficulty in this process, former Secretary of State Jim Bennett, for whom I worked, ordered that the reports be electronically scanned and made available on the Internet.

The scanned reports, however, do not allow voters to easily search their contents for specific donors.

Thus, interested citizens must still spend hours on the Internet to gather the information they need.

This bill applies only to campaigns that raise or spend in excess of $100,000 because smaller campaigns do not have the staff, resources or in some cases technology to comply with the electronic filing format.

Because of the minimal amount of money they raise, those campaigns also file smaller reports that are much easier and simpler to peruse.

The bill requires the secretary of state’s office to provide individual campaigns with the software necessary to comply with the bill, and work to develop that software actually began during my tenure with Bennett.

In addition, compliance with the electronic requirement is voluntary for the first four years of the act, thus giving campaigns time to phase in the new requirements and becomes mandatory thereafter.

Cam Ward serves as state representative for Shelby County in the Alabama Legislature. Ward resides with his wife, Julie, and their daughter, Riley, in Alabaster