Experts say political landscape in Alaska tilting to favor industry

Legal officials analyzing how Supreme Court decision affects state's campaign finance laws

Posted: Friday, February 12, 2010

In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision on corporate campaigning, observers say Alaska's political landscape will become even more malleable to industries' designs, while state lawmakers are trying to update, and possibly shore up, campaign laws before elections later this year.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / The Associated Press
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / The Associated Press

Lawmakers have been quizzing state lawyers since the high court threw out part of a federal law that allowed states to bar corporations from independently spending their money on advertising that urged people to vote for or against specific candidates - something Alaska had banned outright. That kind of third-party political spending is now a form of protected free speech.

Deputy Attorney General Craig Tillery said Thursday he hopes a formal legal analysis of how the decision affects Alaska campaign finance laws will be done within a week.

Alaska's big industries - oil and gas, mining, tourism and fishing - already have an asymmetrical relationship with state government, University of Fairbanks politics professor Jerry McBeath said, and the Supreme Court's decision further unbalances it. Industry-specific policies with billion-dollar consequences are always hot topics in Juneau, generating radio and television spots, print ads and industry conferences that play out like issue-specific political rallies.

Now, companies can set their political sights on candidates, too.

"I would say in the next few years - as people want to revisit the ACES legislation, petroleum production tax, want to look at gas line development and as mining issues come up, these are all big issues - we're going to see an increase in the amount of money rolling through Alaska politics" at the individual candidate level, McBeath said.

McBeath said oil companies are particularly likely to exercise their new political vocal cords. Through political action committees, they're already the state's biggest political donors, said McBeath, who co-authored the 2008 book "The Political Economy of Oil in Alaska: Multinationals vs. The State."

There is a possible upside for Alaska's democracy: "Increased communication means greater likelihood people will know what's going on, as long as there are countervailing messages," McBeath said, but Alaska's big industries are examples of "concentrated economic power for which there is no ready and willing countervailing force."

That leads back to the downside: "money buying outcomes that may not be in the public interest."

But Paul Laird, general manager of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance responsible for the Faces of ACES ad campaign that blames new oil industry taxes for Alaska job losses, said his organization does not plan to get into specific candidates' races. Likewise, a spokesman for one of the state's big three oil companies, Steve Rinehart of BP Alaska, said he doesn't think the decision will have a practical effect on his company or its political action committee.

"It's long been our practice not to, as a company, ... donate money or underwrite political candidates or political campaigns," Rinehart said.

Houston-based Exxon Mobil Corp. said it had no comment on the court's decision.

Still, McBeath's analysis echoes concerns laid out by the Supreme Court's dissenting justices, members of Congress and some state lawmakers.

That prompted the state's pending legal analysis. It should give policymakers a clearer picture of revisions that could be made to state campaign laws and how much wiggle room - if any - there is to rein in the court decision's effects.

The Senate Judiciary Committee concluded last week that corporations may not need to disclose their Alaska election spending this year unless lawmakers force them. Committee aide Cindy Smith said a bill to do that is likely to be ready for discussion next week.

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