Sen. Debra Bowen
"To most people in California, Sacramento may as well be on Mars" is how then-freshman Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) described the hard time most people had trying to find out what was happening in California's state Capitol back in 1993.
January 24, 2004, marks the 10-year anniversary of California's move into cyber space -- a move that began in 1993 when Bowen introduced AB 1624 to make legislators' voting records, along with bills, staff analyses, statutes, and much more, available to the public at no cost "by way of the largest nonproprietary, nonprofit cooperative public computer network." The measure was signed into law by then-Governor Pete Wilson in late 1993 and the system went online on January 24, 1994.
"It's just mind-boggling how far this whole thing has come," said Bowen, now a second-term state senator. "When I introduced that bill, most people, including me, had never heard of the Internet and spam was something people in the Army ate."
When AB 1624 took effect, it made California the first state in the nation to put its legislative information, voting records and state laws online. Since then, virtually every other state has followed California's lead to make their legislative information available via the Internet, and the U.S. Congress has followed suit as well.
"My goal was to open up the legislative process and de-mystify what goes on in Sacramento," explained Bowen. "Most people around the Capitol thought I was crazy, like the time I asked to set up my own e-mail address, because they didn't believe people in the 'real world' cared about having electronic access to the Legislature so they could keep track of what their representatives were working and voting on. But people do care what their government is up to, and you build trust with people by sharing information, not by keeping it under lock and key."
The legislative site received an average of 1,666 visits per day, or 50,000 per month, during the first year the site was up and running in 1994. By 1997, visits to the site had more than doubled to an average of 3,841 visitors every day, or 115,230 per month. Between 1997 and 2003, the average number of daily visits jumped by more than 500 percent to 23,183, or 695,490 per month. Last year, the average number of daily queries for information was 381,459, which works out to over 11.4 million queries a month and 136.8 million queries for the year. Each "query" represents a separate request for information made during a single visit (an electronic visitor who looks up three different votes on the web site has made three "queries" during their one "visit"). The statistics represent visits made directly to the www.leginfo.ca.gov site and indirectly to that site via the www.sen.ca.gov and www.assembly.ca.gov sites. They don't include visits made to other legislative Web pages, such as visits to look at a senator's biography or an Assembly member's press releases.
The biggest fight over AB 1624 -- notwithstanding the fact the bill never received a negative vote and passed the two houses on votes of 35-0 and 79-0 -- had to do with whether people would have to pay to access the Legislature's electronic information. Bowen wrote the law to preclude the Legislature from charging any fee to access the information.
"Thomas Jefferson said an informed citizenry is the best guarantee of a responsible government -- he didn't say we should be hawking the Constitution on eBay or selling electronic access to legislative records for $19.95 a month," concluded Bowen. "It seems pretty unbelievable today, but back in 1993, the bill nearly died because a number of people wanted to turn the information superhighway into a toll road and charge people for looking up legislative information electronically. I wasn't about to let the Legislature or anyone else charge people to look up a lawmaker's voting record or any other piece of legislative information, because no one should have to pay the government to find out what the people they elect are doing on their behalf."