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FYI, here is an idea whose time has come

Florida has a longstanding tradition of making public records accessible to the public. It's a pretty good law, despite all the chipping away that legislators have done at it in recent years as they create new exemptions.

But it doesn't mean people in public office are always eager to cough up the records that the law makes public. Indeed, I spend part of every day in a tug of war with some bureaucrat who doesn't want to give up such information.

One of the worst fights we ever had was over access to the state payroll, a document that should be public if anything is public. But the bureaucrats with their fingers on the payroll didn't want to let it go, at least not on computer tapes that would allow us to analyze it.

We spent more than a month fighting to get it at a time when Gov. Lawton Chiles was bragging he'd cut 5,000 people off the payroll. It should come as no surprise that we found more than 3,000 additional state employees on that payroll when we finally got our hands on it.

Some institutions have reputations as being difficult to deal with, like Florida A&M University, where a request for a simple record becomes an all-out fight. Others keep records in ways that make it difficult to use the information if you get your hands on it. For instance, the Legislature keeps a record of how legislators vote on bills, but you have to check page by page, bill by bill, to determine how an individual legislator has been voting.

Given this background, it is particularly refreshing to see what Secretary of State Sandra Mortham has done in the state Division of Elections.

For years, everyone who cared about campaign records had to buy them page by page and figure out contributions line by line. Determining how much a person or interest group contributed to a candidate was an agonizing process.

Not anymore.

Thanks to Mortham, the information is on the Internet _ free and available to anyone with access to a computer and the information highway.

Last week, as candidates qualified to seek office, Mortham's office had up-to-the-minute information online. More than 35,000 requests for it hit the Internet between 8 a.m. and noon Friday. The system handles about 20,000 requests a day.

What has this cost? Almost nothing.

David Rancourt, the 31-year-old former campaign aide for a number of widely known Republicans, runs the office and puts information on the Internet despite a 16 percent cut in staff.

They did have to buy one piece of equipment to build a security firewall needed to protect the state system against computer hackers, but it has all come out of the regular budget.

For years, the office had huge backlogs of information requests. Sometimes it took weeks to get copies of a campaign report. Putting the information online means fewer people are demanding staff time to make copies and answer phones.

The information has always been part of the public record and available for inspection if you could make the trip to the state Capitol, pay 15 cents a page or wait for the mail.

But now you can dial into the state page on your computer

(http://election.dos.state.fl.us), look up any candidate, political action committee or party and find out who is giving and who is getting. The information is searchable by name, interest group, address or amount of contribution.

It is an amazing bit of progress in a world where far too many people spend far too much time keeping information from those who want it. Florida is the first state to offer such information on elections, a fact that has won Mortham plaudits from national organizations.

You can bet that not all candidates will like it. Some would rather make it hard for us to find out who is giving them money.

For Mortham, the decision was easy. She knew it would be hard to reform the election process, but making the information available could help bring accountability to the process.

Now she's made it possible to register to vote online. In three days last week, 1,000 people did. Glory be.

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