Calif. Lawmakers Vow to Overhaul Campaign Money Database

By Laura Mahoney

March 15 — Proponents of a political process overhaul measure planned for the November ballot said March 14 they are dropping the effort so they can back legislation that would overhaul California's antiquated, unreliable campaign finance database system.

Jim Heerwagen, a software entrepreneur who has been leading an effort to place the Voters' Right to Know Act on the ballot, appeared with Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D) and Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) at a Capitol news conference in Sacramento to support Hertzberg's S.B. 1349. The bill would replace the old database, known as Cal-Access, with a new data-driven system that provides searchable information in real time.

Heerwagen said he and other backers stopped gathering signatures needed to qualify the ballot measure in order to support the new bill. The Voters' Right to Know Act ballot proposal focused on systematic, transparent disclosure of campaign finance, and the “El Nino of dark money” in California elections, he said.

Cal-Access was created in 2000, and was designed to accommodate paper forms that candidates and campaigns must submit to the Secretary of State. It was meant to last only a few years and suffers from frequent crashes on top of its many other shortcomings.

‘Frankenstein' of Code

Padilla called Cal-Access a “Frankenstein” with layer upon layer of computer code.

“When it was rolled out we were in the era of pagers and flip phones,” Padilla said. “We should let the public and the press have quick, easy and reliable access to campaign finance information.”

Hertzberg said he is asking the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to include $13.5 million in the state budget to plan for funding the project while the bill to set up its statutory framework progresses.

“It undermines democracy when the public cannot easily access information about campaign and lobbying disclosures or search it with ease,” Hertzberg said.

Heerwagen, Padilla, and Hertzberg said they negotiated the agreement along with California Common Cause, the California Business Roundtable and other groups in the past month. They took advantage of new rules under a 2014 law allowing lawmakers to seek compromise with initiative backers before such measures reach the ballot.

“We're told that we've had an impact on conversations around the Capitol,” Heerwagen said.

Two Other Measures

The database measure, together with two other bills that could pass this year, represent the core of the issues the dropped initiative sought to address, Heerwagen said. The other two bills are:


  • A.B. 700 by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D), called the DISCLOSE Act, which would require ballot measure committees and political action committees to prominently display the names of their top three funders on advertisements; and
  • A.B. 1200 by Assemblyman Richard Gordon (D), which would require individuals who meet with government officials to influence procurement of government contracts to register as lobbyists.

    A.B. 700 passed the Assembly Jan. 28 and is awaiting action in the Senate . A.B. 1200 passed both the Assembly and Senate in 2015 and only needs a final vote on the Assembly floor to concur in Senate amendments before reaching the governor's desk to be signed into law.

    To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Mahoney in Sacramento, Calif., at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at

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