Alaska deserves full disclosure from corporations

Posted: Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The following editorial appeared in theAnchorage Daily News:

On Jan. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions can spend freely to support or oppose a candidate for federal office right up to Election Day. On Feb. 19, lawmakers in the Alaska Legislature proposed bills that would require strict disclosure and disclaimer statements on such advertising.

Sen. Hollis French, Rep. Les Gara and Rep. Scott Kawasaki led the way with this rapid response to the court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. They're also backing a long-term response aimed at overturning the court's decision. That legislation would deny the status of personhood to corporations for the purpose of influencing elections. First, the rapid response.

Identical bills in the House and Senate would require all "persons," the legal standing of corporations affirmed by the court's decision, to disclose in detail to the Alaska Public Offices Commission all contributions and expenditures on behalf of or against a candidate, a full list of the corporate officers and directors if applicable and the name of the ballot measure or candidate addressed.

In addition, any campaign advertising would have to include the "person's" principal officer and title, the address of the business and the names of the "person's" top five contributors to the campaign.

The disclaimer would have to make clear to anyone reading, hearing or viewing a campaign ad that the candidate in question does not authorize or endorse the ad.

These laws would become effective in Alaska immediately upon passage - if they're passed this session, we'd keep any corporate and union spending right out in the light for the 2010 primary and general elections.

Disclosure must be an absolute in Alaska politics. We've had experience of bogus front groups masking large amounts of money aimed to help or hurt candidates and ballot initiatives. While the court's ruling left federal disclosure rules intact, it left Alaska open to nondisclosure because we didn't allow corporations to directly support or oppose candidates; hence we had no disclosure rules in place when the justices opened the door to corporate giving.

The message and the law needs to be strong and clear: If you want to participate in Alaska campaign politics, stand up and be counted - by name, by number, by affiliation and by amount. We want to know who you are, how many you are, who you're with and how much you're contributing.

That way we can figure out where your interests lie - and where the candidate you're backing may stand.

If you want anonymity, stay out of the game. Alaska politics should be secret in one place - the voting booth.

These disclosure and disclaimer bills, Senate Bill 284 and House Bill 358, deserve expedited committee hearings and swift passage. They'll keep Alaska politics open and the political players out front where they belong.

The same lawmakers are backing short bills (Senate Bill 285, House Bill 359) that say simply that corporations are not persons when it comes to election spending. The aim here is to restore the authority of the federal government and the states to place limits on corporate power over elections and candidates.

The reason is simple. The largest corporations have enormous resources. And the plain truth - the "common sense" referred to by Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent from the January ruling - is that effective free speech in a modern election is not free.

Thus, the organizations with the most money buy the most speech. With the court's ruling, that's more likely than ever before. Corporate interests could dominate radio, television and print advertising and have the power to drown out dissenting voices. Candidates - despite any disclaimers - could find themselves ever more beholden to corporate interests that outspend their own campaigns and claim credit for their victories.

A healthy representative democracy limits such power.

Given the Supreme Court's decision, such a law likely would be challenged. That's the idea. The sponsors want the court to rethink the Citizens United case.

Sen. French said these bills will take more time and are part of a national chorus of opposition to the court's ruling. Alaska's voice should be clear in that chorus. The court's January ruling is the law of the land for now. That's all the more reason to get tough disclosure laws on the books.

The Legislature should waste no time approving tough disclosure laws - and provide the means to enforce them.

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