Knowles to veto campaign finance bill

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2000

Gov. Tony Knowles has vetoed a campaign financing bill, saying it ``significantly weakens'' Alaska's existing laws.

In a news release, Knowles said House Bill 225 violates the spirit of a 1996 voter initiative that spurred the Legislature that year to place strict limits on how campaigns can be financed.

``No evidence has surfaced that Alaskans feel differently today about the effect of money on politics than they did in 1996,'' Knowles said.

The vetoed bill was sponsored by Republican Reps. John Cowdery of Anchorage and Vic Kohring of Wasilla. It passed largely along party lines, with all but six Republican lawmakers voting for it and all but two Democrats voting against it.

Efforts to reach sponsors of the bill or Republican majority leaders were not immediately successfully.

Among its provisions, House Bill 225 extends the period during which candidates for governor and lieutenant governor can raise money. It lets businesses, labor unions and other interest groups spend money to put on political party events. And it increases the amount of leftover campaign money lawmakers can transfer to their office expense accounts.

Legislators who supported the bill had argued legislators need the money after they take office because they need to travel to their districts and meet with constituents to do a good job -- and that can be expensive in some large rural districts.

Opponents of the bill, however, said the change would give incumbents an unfair advantage.

``They use that money for constituent relations. They use it to curry favor with local charities in their districts. It's basically used for this year-round campaign,'' Frank said.

Mike Frank and David Finkelstein of Campaign Finance Reform Now! thanked Knowles in a letter for the veto.

``This legislation weakens the campaign reform law passed in 1996, and benefits only incumbents,'' they said in the letter.

Campaign Finance Reform Now! was behind a voter initiative aimed at tightening Alaska's campaign finance laws. The group gathered more than enough signatures to have the reform measure placed on the 1996 election ballot. That left the Legislature with the choice of either letting the measure go on the ballot or passing substantially similar legislation.

The result was the 1996 law passed by the Legislature, which Frank said was at the time one of the strictest in the country. It includes a complete prohibition on contributions by corporations and unions to candidates, political parties and political action groups.

One provision of House Bill 225 would have allowed corporations and unions to contribute up to $1,000 to help political parties stage special events, such as conventions.

During the legislative session supporters of the bill had argued that provision was not a major change since businesses and unions were still not allowed to make direct contributions to candidates.

However, Frank called it a weakening of the law.

``One of the key objectives of the campaign finance reform initiative was getting corporate, union, professional lobbyists and other kinds of entities' money out of the system and allowing only individual, that is individual voters, to contribute to candidates, to political parties and to PACs,'' Frank said.

``HB 225 lets the corporate and union and lobbyist money back in through the back door by allowing them to finance these political party events,'' he said.

Knowles said another provision allowing a candidate for governor or lieutenant governor to raise money for almost four years instead of 18 months has the effect of raising the amount a person can contribute to the candidate from $1,000 to $2,000. There is a $500 per year limit on how much an individual can contribute to a candidate.

The bill also would increase the amount of leftover campaign funds legislators can put into office expense accounts. The amount goes from $10,000 to $16,000 for representatives and from $20,000 to $40,000 for senators.

The bill passed the House 23-16 and the Senate 15-5. Juneau's Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula and Democratic Sen. Kim Elton voted against the bill. Republican Rep. Bill Hudson of Juneau was absent for the vote.

Because the Legislature has adjourned, legislators cannot attempt to override the governor's veto unless they meet in a special session. Even if they did, the measure did not pass with enough votes to override a veto, which requires a two-thirds vote.

For legislators to call themselves back into a special session would also require a two-thirds vote unless the governor called them back to Juneau himself on another topic.

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