Gov. Frank Murkowski and his administration now claim they are trying to streamline rather than eliminate the Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC). But the trade-offs hidden in the legislation lower the shades on open government and hamper public input in the public process.
In fact, the changes would make political fat cats fatter by doubling contribution limits set in response to the campaign finance reform initiative of 1996. It seems as though the governor has taken a page from his D.C. playbook and wrapped up the good and the bad into one omnibus bill that may give APOC a few more teeth, but would allow big-money interests and lobbyists easy avenues to avoid those teeth.
Capital improvements that APOC has been requesting for years finally may be undertaken. Allegations and violations could be pursued and processed quicker. Electronic filing would free APOC staff to investigate rather than enter phone book-sized reports. Yet the so-called streamlining includes the doubling of campaign contributions and expands the number of big-money donors.
This will only streamline the influence of special interest money on our political system. The governor wants to solve supposed problems by throwing money at them, only this time it's special-interest money.
The governor has faulted the APOC for being slow. It is unclear how doubling the amount individuals, PACs and other organizations can give will help APOC become more efficient. It is clear that campaigns will continue to become more and more expensive, and that special interest-money will have more influence if the bill passes.
Money influencing politics is the exact reason that angry voters banded together in 1996 and turned in the strong campaign finance reform initiative that had overwhelming public support. This current bill is a breach of faith with those 31,000 Alaskan voters who signed the initiative. So popular was the initiative that it moved the Legislature to action, no small feat. Only two legislators voted against the campaign finance reform bill that passed during that legislative session.
They were voted out in the next election. Is this Legislature willing to go against the people's will in order to make campaigns more expensive?
The bill goes on to exempt lobbyists from another of the provisions of the 1996 campaign finance reform law, allowing them to donate to legislative candidates outside of their district. Lobbyists are allowed to give contributions to all groups, parties, candidates for governor and municipal office, and legislative candidates in their own district.
The legislative limit was established so they couldn't lobby with one hand and pass campaign contributions with the other.
This common sense rule has stood up to legal challenges. Several bills this session have attempted to sneak around the donation ban by changing the definition of who is a lobbyist. This bill drops the restriction and the gloves, coming out clearly in favor of more money and big money influencing the Legislature.
The governor's proposed legislation also increases from $1,000 to $10,000 the reporting threshold for legislative financial disclosure filers; from $250 to $500 for gifts; and, from $1,000 to $10,000 for loans.
Alaskans should know who is providing significant salaries, payments, gifts and loans to our elected officials. Amounts between $1,000 and $10,000 are not minor and should be publicly disclosed. The APOC has played a vital role in Alaska politics since its inception. It is the only state agency that originated as a result of public action. A 1974 initiative that required disclosure of and limits on campaign financing, and disclosure of public officials' income sources drew nearly 15,000 signatures. Spurred by the public outcry, the Legislature passed its own campaign disclosure law in 1974, which created the Alaska Election Campaign Commission, later renamed the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
The commission itself is comprised of one member each from the Republican and Democratic parties and a third appointed by the governor. Thus it enjoys a freedom from partisan politics and can be a watchdog for all Alaska.
Young people are increasingly choosing not to vote because they don't think it matters. Regardless of political party or ideology, they agree on one thing - elections go the highest bidder. The bill that is supposedly going to fix Alaska's campaign watchdog is trying to raise those bids. Alaska doesn't need that kind of help.
Steve Cleary is the executive director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group.