My Turn: Campaign finance reform - again

Posted: Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Political campaigns in Alaska have become alarmingly expensive. In 2002, two primary opponents in a race for a state house seat spent over $110,000 each. A close state senate race saw the opponents spend nearly $190,000 each. Sen. Ben Stevens raised $131,000 - even though he had no opposition. The 2002 governor's race cost each major party candidate nearly $2 million. The 2004 U.S. Senate race frontrunners are seeking to raise $3-4 million each.

Yet, voter turnout continues to fade, totaling only 50.5 percent in the 2002 general election. The more money flows into slick, ad-drenched campaigns, the more voters avoid the polls. Young voters who will soon be stepping into leadership roles in the civic sphere are the least likely to vote. The cynicism inspired by repeated corruption at all political levels is dismantling our democracy.

Citizens need to stand up and tell our legislators that we don't want them beholden to wealthy campaign donators. It's time to take back our electoral system from the grip of big money and special interest groups. It's time to reinvigorate our democracy by showing citizens that people matter more than large dollar campaign contributions and that our democracy is not for sale.

That's why AkPIRG and Campaign Finance Reform - AGAIN! are working together to gather over 23,000 signatures by Jan. 12 in order to bring back these popular reforms to Alaska. These signatures will put a voter initiative on the 2004 ballot that will allow Alaskans to decide on this important issue.

The citizens of Alaska overwhelmingly favored strong campaign finance reform in 1996, resulting in some of the most far-reaching reforms in the nation. As so often happens, new legislators think they know better than the citizens they serve. The 2003 Legislature passed a bill doubling the campaign contribution limits, opening the floodgate for more money. Governor Murkowski signed the bill and now our political system is for sale to special interests that have money to contribute to high dollar campaigns.

Does the doubling of these limits promote more participation in political campaigns? It does not. Voter turnout has been plummeting as our radio and TV airwaves have become saturated with attack ads. What it does do is open the door for donors who can donate a thousand dollars a pop to buy access to politicians, while ordinary citizens our left out of the process.

The Campaign Finance Reform Initiative will:

• Decrease the amounts individuals may give candidates or groups from $1,000 to $500.

• Decrease amounts individuals may give political parties for any purpose from $10,000 to $5,000.

• Decrease amounts groups may give candidates, groups, or political parties from $2,000 to $1,000.

• Require groups to disclose information on contributions over $100.

It would also reduce from 40 to 10 the number of hours a person could lobby in any 30-day period before having to register as a lobbyist. In addition, it would require legislators to disclose outside income sources greater than $1,000. The recent coal bed methane controversy in the Mat-Su Valley has shown again how conflicts can arise between legislators elected to serve the people and corporations paying these legislators. These provision will give Alaskans better knowledge of who is lobbying their lawmakers and from whom our lawmakers are receiving a salary.

When over 31,000 Alaskans signed the 1996 Campaign Finance Reform initiative, it inspired the Legislature to take actions which limited the amount money could influence Alaskan elections. Alaskans now need to stand up and send that message to our lawmakers - again.

Elections should not be won simply because one candidate, particularly the incumbent, is able to raise more money than the other candidates. More money thrown at elections only increases the number of attack ads, but does little to increase the substance of debate on important issues affecting Alaska's future. Alaskans can take action to stop that trend.

AkPIRG is enlisting volunteers across the state to help with this grassroots effort to get big money out of Alaska politics. We will be holding an open-house, town meeting in Juneau on Wednesday, Oct. 8. Please drop by any time from 5-8 p.m at McPhetres Hall at Holy Trinity Church (325 Gold Street). Ordinary citizens can assure that they will continue to have a voice in their government by putting campaign finance reform on the ballot - again

• Steve Cleary is executive director of AkPIRG.

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