A grade of D-minus usually is not cause for celebration. But when Utah received that Wednesday in an annual report card on state campaign finance disclosure systems, it was the highest grade the state has ever achieved.

"A D-minus is poor, obviously. But I think we're at least moving in the right direction," said Joe Demma, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, whose office collects and distributes data from disclosure forms. He says a new, more user-friendly system for searching that data online should be ready early next year.

The grade is for more than just the performance by Herbert's office. It is also evaluates how much information Utah disclosure laws require. And all of that was blasted in the annual report card by the Campaign Disclosure Project, which is run by a coalition of good-government groups.

"Utah earned its first overall passing grade and ranked 40th (out of 50 states) in 2008," the report said. It was ahead of 10 states that received Fs, but 24 states managed to receive As or Bs — showing Utah that it can be done.

The report gave a sub-grade of D-minus to Utah's disclosure laws. That was up slightly from an F last year because of a law passed in 2007 that requires office holders to file disclosure reports annually instead of only in election years. They now must also itemize contributions of $50 or more.

But the report complains that "donor occupation and employer data are not reported," so it is difficult to see if employees of a given company or industry are banding together to help a particular candidate or cause.

Utah received an F for its electronic filing program. The state does not require electronic filing of disclosure reports (while 24 states do). But the report said Utah's voluntary program was used in 2007 by virtually all statewide candidates and about 60 percent of legislative candidates. Electronic filing allows quicker and more in-depth searches of data.

The state received a subgrade of D-minus for the access and usability of data that is available online. Among problems, the report said, are: "search options are limited; candidates complete reports cannot be reviewed online; and users can browse but not search itemized expenditure reports."

Demma said the system used by the lieutenant governor's office is being upgraded. "The user-friendly nature will be 100 percent better," he said.

"Right now, you can't find certain information because the program was written so long ago that it wasn't written with any sort of understanding of what people wanted" to find in searching disclosure forms. The new system will allow better searches, he said.

The new system is now being tested. Demma said the state had hoped to have it running last summer, but said it found that wasn't possible with the stretched resources of his office. He said he hopes it will now be available for use with year-end reports to be filed by candidates — after this year's elections are over.

"Everything that is available on a paper report will be available online. The (Web) page will look cleaner and work better," Demma said. He said it should also allow easier downloading into spreadsheets to allow better analysis — something that is difficult with the current system.

Demma said his office also looks at reports such as the one issued Wednesday to see what other states are doing, and learn from their best practices.

"Our goal is to make everything as easy for public to find as possible. We are always striving for improvement," he said.

The Campaign Disclosure Project is a collaboration of the California Voter Foundation, the Center for Governmental Studies, and the UCLA School of Law, and is supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Grades among states have been improving since the the project began issuing grades in 2003. The report said 36 states have improved their grades in that time.


E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com