Modernizing program runs into difficulties

Posted: Monday, June 20, 2005

The move to modernize handling of the flood of campaign disclosure documents state law requires of candidates, lobbyists and groups promoting ballot propositions has faced a variety of difficulties. That's what Brooke Miles, executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, says.

The agency's current e-filing program created in 1997 and called ELFS for Electronic Filing System, is woefully obsolete. Its database, FoxPro, is no longer supportable.

Revisions to the state's campaign disclosure law adopted in 2003 and accompanied by a $450,000 state capital budget appropriation helped launch the ongoing effort to create a Web-based system to supplant ELFS. A beta version is expected by July.

Those revisions granted the commission the authority to mandate that campaigns and lobbyists file their documents electronically. But while that authority existed, the requirement was never instituted and wouldn't have been until a modern, user-friendly Internet system was ready, said Miles.

The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Gary Wilkin, R-Fairbanks, and Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, viewed that authority differently, however, and set about changing what they called the "unintended consequence" that the APOC would no longer accept financial disclosure, campaign disclosure, lobbyist and legislative financial disclosure reports written on paper.

Amendments adopted into law in 2004 obligated the APOC to continue accepting typed or hand-printed paper formats even as the agency was attempting to move away from hardcopy filing. The law also required something else, Miles said.

A provision included by Wilkin forced the APOC to begin printing its paper forms so the front and back of each page had the same top-to-bottom orientation, meaning they could be read like pages in a book.

That might seem a small thing, Miles said, except that disclosure files are stored in binders with ring holes on the top of the page (called a tumbler file). The backs of the paper forms were printed upside down compared to the front on purpose, making them easier to read when the page was flipped up and over the binder rings.

To adhere to the new law, the APOC was forced to start printing single-sided paper documents, because they still have to be filed in the tumbler binders, Miles said.

"It's doubled the amount of paper," she said. And it cost more.

According to Green's sponsor statement for Senate Bill 351 in 2004, protecting the right of filers to submit paper documents was meant to remove an obstacle for those not accustomed to using computers or who lived where there was no reliable Internet service.

"Further, the electronic filing requirement will discourage candidates from running for office if they lack computer knowledge or cannot afford to hire someone to complete the electronic filing process," Green said in April 2004.

The paperwork headache created by the 2004 revision was, however, small potatoes compared to the more serious problem facing the APOC — a lack of sufficient funding to perform its public disclosure duties, Miles said.

Since 2000, its budget has hovered between a high of $803,000 during 2002 and a low of $662,600 in 2004, even as the cost of operations rose. The current budget spends $665,500.

The cycle beginning July 1 will provide the agency a $38,000 increase.

"The APOC has really, really serious funding issues," Miles said. "It's difficult to get (legislative) support for an increase. There's probably a myriad of reasons, but the people funding us are some of the same people most intensely regulated by us."

Miles said the agency requested funding to cover additional clerical help to enable them to catch up on a backlog of handwritten reports that must be entered into the electronic database.

"We were unable to convince the administration that there was a viable cost in a nonelection year," she said.

This year's election only covers ballot issues and municipal candidates, but the campaigns for seats in the Alaska Legislature and the governor's office already are active. Miles predicted that "a ton of" backlogged paper files yet to be entered could put their campaign disclosure efforts "in real trouble" next year.

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