Cal-Access: Let the Users Pay

Some of California’s editorial writers and political consultants have worked themselves into a tizzy over the crash and lengthy outage of the California Automated Lobbying and Campaign Contribution and Expenditure Search System (Cal-Access to its friends.)

As Joe Mathews explained yesterday at Prop Zero, Cal-Access, a database of campaign/lobbying contributions and expenditures, is powered, as is much of the state government’s information infrastructure, by aging 2oth-century technology. When the system crashed a few weeks ago, the Secretary of State’s office found itself with an expensive and technically tricky repair job on its hands.

There seems little disagreement that the state needs to buy a new system to run Cal-Access. But California, with a broken system of government that leaves it in perpetual budget crisis, has no money sitting around to invest in such things. And at a time when the state is making cuts that jeopardize the public safety, health, and education of its citizens, no sane person would suggest that buying a new Cal-Access system would have a high claim on any new general fund revenue that might become available.

That makes Cal-Access a perfect candidate for user financing.

Although it is offered as a general public service, it is used most heavily by a small and selective group of inside political players: media companies, political consultants, lobbyists, special interest donors, vendors of political services, non-profit organizations. It is how they keep track of the political money game, monitor the moves of rivals, and check the prevailing prices and wages in the political game. You can tell how much the inside players value the service Cal-Access provides by the volume of their complaints over its absence. Here is a market opportunity for government.

So, by all means, let’s get Cal-Access up and running, and then invest in a modern system. And let’s do it by having the users pay.

People who want to use the system would set up accounts. As at many media sites, there would be tiered pricing. Users would get a small amount of access free, enough to meet the needs of ordinary voters. Heavy users would pay according to their usage. Nonprofit organizations that repackage and interpret the information in forms freely available to the public would get free access. The money paid by users would support both the capital and operating costs of the site.

This is a solution everyone should love. Liberals will get political transparency. Inside political players will get a modern and reliable Cal-Access system. Conservatives will get an example of government's operating like a business and responding to the demands of the market. Policy wonks will move closer to their goal of having user-financing for non-general services, reserving general revenue for general needs.

And California will have made an important point: You can’t have something for nothing, even if you’re an editorial writer or a political consultant.