The government entity that oversees lobbyists and campaign contributions might not be killed by Gov. Frank Murkowski this session, but it could end up keeping watch over larger contributions and looser regulation of lobbyists.
The Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday passed Senate Bill 119, proposed by Murkowski, that would overhaul regulations imposed by the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
The proposal would allow individuals and groups to give political candidates twice the amount of money allowed under existing law. Individual contributions to candidates and political action committees would increase from $500 to $1,000 a year. Individuals could give $10,000 a year to political parties as opposed to the current $5,000 limit.
Political action committees would be allowed to contribute $5,000 a year to candidates and $10,000 a year to political parties. The limit for each now is $1,000.
The bill exempts municipal candidates from campaign disclosure laws; allows lobbyists to contribute to candidates outside of their legislative districts; allows state lawmakers to hold fund-raisers during the legislative session; and defines a lobbyist as someone who is paid to lobby or spends more than 16 hours lobbying lawmakers within a 30-day period.
The bill would give APOC authority to expedite investigations on complaints that could affect the outcome of an election. APOC also would have cease-and-desist authority over campaign material that is being investigated.
The proposal appeared in the Senate State Affairs Committee Tuesday as a substitute for a bill that would have eliminated APOC and divided its duties between the Division of Elections and the Department of Law.
Most of the new changes to the bill were made at the request of APOC, according to Brooke Miles, executive director of APOC. Miles said the commission "enthusiastically endorses the bill."
Kevin Jardell, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Administration, said allowing candidates to receive larger contributions would provide fuller disclosure of those who contribute to political action committees outside of the state.
"In the last campaign we saw more money being expended with less disclosure," Jardell said. "People who don't have avenues to participate in some way in the election have seen fit to go to (Washington) D.C. or other places with their money where Alaskans can't find out who is contributing."
But Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who has been an outspoken opponent changing APOC, called the argument illogical.
"If people were cheating before, this gives them twice as much room to cheat. If they are going to cheat by using shell organizations to donate money, this bill now says they can still do that but they can donate twice as much money legally," Gara said.
Gara said the bill would gut campaign finance reforms that were passed by the Legislature in 1996. The 1996 bill was passed by lawmakers in response to a ballot initiative that aimed to lower campaign contribution limits.
"This bill is completely out of touch with what the public wants," Gara said.
Steve Cleary of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group said he supports the administration's decision not to eliminate APOC and agrees with the provisions for speedier investigations of complaints.
But Cleary said AKPIRG disagrees with most other parts of the bill - especially the one that allows lobbyists to contribute to lawmakers outside their own legislative district.
"Really what they're giving is more access to big money," he said.
But Miles said despite stronger campaign finance reform laws in the '90s, the amount of money donated to politicians in recent elections has increased.
"Now one of the goals of campaign finance reform was that elections would cost less, but all you have to do is look at the elections in 1998, 2000 and 2002 and you'll see that that probably doesn't work," Miles said.
Miles said the commission, which employs 11 people on an annual budget of $752,600, will need, at a minimum, flat funding from the Legislature to fulfill its new duties under the governor's proposal.
She said some of the administrative costs would decrease if the Legislature funds a computer system that would allow lawmakers to file disclosure statements online.
She said APOC hopes to have the new system installed in time for the 2004 state election.
The system would cost about $450,000 and would allow APOC staff to spend more time investigating complaints.
The bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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