Legislators have loosened some of the campaign financing restraints they put on themselves four years ago.
They will be able to keep more of their leftover campaign funds under House Bill 225. Corporations and unions will be able to contribute money to political parties to help them stage events. And polls that aren't done on behalf of a specific candidate don't have to be counted as contributions.
The bill passed both the House and Senate last year, but there were differences between the two versions that had to be settled in a House-Senate conference committee this year.
The compromise version of the bill passed the House late Sunday night on a 23-16 vote. Juneau Democrat Beth Kerttula voted no and Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson was absent. The compromise version had already passed the Senate 15-5, with Juneau Democrat Kim Elton voting no.
The bill increases the amount of leftover campaign money that can go to legislators' office expense accounts. That cap used to be $5,000 a year.
Now senators can transfer up to $10,000 a year, or $40,000 total, over their four-year term, to an office expense account. Representatives can transfer up to $8,000 a year, or $16,000 total, over their two-year term, to an office expense account.
Opponents of the bill said that gives incumbents an advantage over newcomers. ``That gives you more money so you can do newsletters, you can pay postage, you can host events,'' said Rep. Allen Kemplen, an Anchorage Democrat.
Supporters of the bill said increasing the amount of money that can be put in office accounts simply helps legislators keep in touch with their constituents. In far-flung rural districts, travel to meet with constituents can be expensive, said Rep. Gail Phillips, a Homer Republican. Even in her Kenai Peninsula district, which is considered urban, not all communities are on the road system, she said.
The bill also lets corporations, unions and other organizations contribute up to $1,000 for advertising, food, hall rental and other costs of political party annual dinners, meetings, conferences and conventions.
Such groups are still not allowed to make direct contributions to candidates, but opponents said the provision will essentially allow those organizations to host fund-raising events.
The bill also says polls limited to issues and not mentioning any candidate are not considered contributions, unless the poll was requested by, or designed primarily to benefit, the candidate.
Kemplen said that's a problem because a political party could poll voters throughout Anchorage, then provide information to candidates.
``That's an extremely important and extremely valuable benefit,'' he said.
However, Phillips said, parties often conduct such polls. ``The parties are always polling for things just to make sure they're on track for how the constituency feels about things.''
The bill is not a major change for candidates themselves, she said.
``It doesn't change the amount of money candidates can raise. It doesn't change the restrictions on how candidates can raise money.''