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In the closing days of the regular legislative session, Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, amended an elections bill to allow big corporate money into Alaska politics. Undeterred by the fact there had been no public notice or public hearing, Senate Republicans approved the change. But the state House balked, and the amendment was removed.
A triumph for democracy, right?
Not quite. Because on the last day of the special session, Therriault delayed adjournment long enough to make a speech. He said this:
Federal law allows "527" groups, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. Liberals use these groups to support liberal causes. This money is "flooding right into the state of Alaska." So Alaska's political parties should be allowed to accept unlimited amounts of corporate money. He, Gene Therriault, would try again next year. (You can check the accuracy of this summary by reading a transcript of Therriault's speech.)
Even though 527s are connected to Therriault's amendment only in his mind, let's look at his claims.
There are, in fact, organizations called 527s, named for a section of the Internal Revenue Service code. They can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for political purposes. They can't spend money to directly advocate a candidate's election or defeat. They also can't coordinate their activities with a candidate's campaign. They are not regulated by the Federal Elections Commission, but have to report to the IRS.
Some 527s do use liberal money to support liberal causes. But when Therriault paints them as a strictly liberal tool, he's just trying to mislead you. In fact, both nationally and in Alaska, conservatives use them as well. Who could forget Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?
In Alaska, in fact, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the Republican Governor's Association has spent three times as much money as the next closest 527. The College Republican National Committee has raised more money here than any other 527. These sound like liberal organizations to you?
And 527 money is hardly "flooding" into Alaska. The Alaska Public Offices Commission, which regulates state campaigns, reports seeing very little 527 money. Aside from blowback from the presidential campaign and some activity in federal elections, 527s have not been a factor in Alaska's politics.
Even if 527 money were a problem here, how would Therriault's proposal to allow even more big money in Alaska politics be a solution? It wouldn't. It's like saying the way to fight a fire is to throw more gasoline on it.
Therriault claims corporate contributions would be OK, though, because they'd only be used for party-building activities, like voter registration drives. Here's what he doesn't tell you about that.
First, there is no legal definition of party building. You could argue that electing more candidates from your party is party building.
Second, even if you spend the money for voter registration drives, that frees up the money you would have spent on voter registration drives to be spent on campaigns.
So what's Therriault really trying to do? Simple. Alaska law does not allow corporations to make political contributions to candidates or groups. Therriault wants to change that because the Republican Party would get more corporate money than other parties. This is about nothing more than fattening the Republican Party's bank accounts.
Would it? You bet. How do we know? Well, a court ruling allowed corporate contributions for a brief period in 2001, and the Republican Party mistakenly reported some of what it got: $25,000 from Veco, $12,000 from Cornell Companies Inc., $10,000 from Gray Line of Alaska, $8,000 from Philip Morris USA, $7,500 from Holland America and so on.
Selfless giving? Hardly. Veco and Cornell wanted a private prison, Gray Line and Holland America didn't want a cruise ship tax, Philip Morris didn't want higher tobacco taxes. You get the picture.
Alaskans don't want big money in their state's politics. They've said so at the polls. But Gene Therriault doesn't care about that. He wants the dough for his own partisan purposes. Better keep an eye on him.
Mike Doogan is press secretary for the House and Senate Democrats.