The California First Amendment Coalition and MAPLight.org – a Berkeley-based nonpartisan nonprofit research group that exposes connections between money and politics – said the database became available not long after they filed their lawsuit in December in Sacramento County Superior Court.
“It shouldn’t take a lawsuit for the government to realize its data belongs to the people,” MAPLight.org executive director Daniel Newman said in a news release. “In this new era of highlighting transparency, we hope this settlement serves as an example to city and state governments across the country to provide public access to public information.”
California Legislative data, including how lawmakers vote, legislation in progress, and laws, used to be available to the public only in a plain-text format on the California Legislative Information website. It could be viewed and printed, but provided access to only one bill at a time, making analysis difficult. CFAC and MAPLight.org had asked for copies of the electronic database used to create the Web site, but the Office of the Legislative Counsel had refused their requests.
Now the website offers a “structured database” containing data on lawmakers’ votes in a machine-readable format. As part of the settlement agreement, which is effective today, CFAC and MAPLight.org agreed to dismiss their lawsuit and agreed that they will not re-file any similar suit so long as the Legislative Counsel maintains this structured database at the same functional level at which it exists today.
The settlement agreement also provides that the Office of the Legislative Counsel will release another database, known as the “Inquire” database that MAPLight.org and CFAC seek to review. The agreement also stipulates that the Office of the Legislative Counsel will pay $65,000 towards MAPLight.org’s and CFAC’s attorney’s fees.
“No longer can legislators use the complexity of the legislative process, and the sheer volume of bills and votes, to hide the favors they are doing for special interests that fund their elections,” said CFAC executive director Peter Scheer. “The more voters know about the influence of money on their elected representatives, the less tolerant they will be.”
MAPLight.org plans to use the structured database to create a new government transparency website, MAPLight.org California, modeled after a MAPLight.org Congress website providing transparency tools including a Money and Votes database showing connections between campaign donations and legislative votes.