Campaign finance bill killed

Knowles vetoes measure

Posted: Friday, May 26, 2000

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

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 in a news release.

The bill was sponsored by Republican Rep. John Cowdery of Anchorage, and it passed largely along party lines.

In a prepared statement, Cowdery said the bill was introduced to put into law rulings made by the Alaska Public Offices Commission and the legislative Ethics Committee. During the committee process, the measure took on some more controversial provisions, but those were scaled back, he said.

``I'm sorry the governor vetoed it because on balance it was a good bill,'' Cowdery said.

``We recognized we were handing the governor a bill that would allow him to engage in a bit of demagoguery against us, or simply admit that it was a good-faith effort to clean up parts of the campaign law,'' Cowdery said. ``He couldn't resist the demagoguery.''

The bill would have extended the period during which candidates for governor and lieutenant governor could raise money. Other provisions would have let businesses, labor unions and other interest groups spend money to put on political party events, and increased the amount of leftover campaign money lawmakers could transfer to their office expense accounts.

Mike Frank of Campaign Finance Reform Now! said he's pleased with the veto. That group 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 letting the measure go before voters or passing substantially similar legislation.

The result was the 1996 law, which Frank called one of the strictest in the country. Among its provisions are a complete prohibition on contributions by corporations and unions to candidates, political parties and political action groups.

One change called for in the bill Knowles vetoed would have let corporations and unions help political parties with the cost of staging annual dinners, meetings, conferences and conventions.

Frank called that 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,'' he 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 called it a ``soft money loophole.''

Chip Wagoner, Republican National Committeeman for Alaska, disputes that characterization. Soft money is cash groups give to a party because they are prohibited from giving it to candidates, and the party then funnels that money to candidates, he said. He said House Bill 225 only would have allowed such money to be spent on actual costs of staging annual meetings and such.

He said the Republican Party supported the provision in the bill because it wants to bring a Republican National Committee meeting to Alaska, but can't afford to do so without sponsorships.

Knowles said another provision allowing a candidate for governor or lieutenant governor to raise money for almost four years instead of 18 months would have had the effect of raising the amount a person can contribute to the candidate from $1,000 to $2,000. The 1996 law put a $500-per-year limit on how much an individual can contribute to a candidate.

HB 225 also would have increased the amount of leftover campaign funds legislators could put into office expense accounts. The amount would have gone from $10,000 to $16,000 for representatives and from $20,000 to $40,000 for senators.

Legislators who supported the bill argued lawmakers need the money to travel to their districts and meet with constituents to do a good job -- which can be expensive in some large rural districts.

Opponents of the bill, however, said the change would have given 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.

The bill passed the House 23-16 and the Senate 15-5, less than the overall two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula and Democratic Sen. Kim Elton voted against the bill. Republican Rep. Bill Hudson of Juneau was absent for the vote.

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