Politics

After federal court action, Alaska prepares to remove most restrictions on campaign contributions

The federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that it will not re-examine a summer decision that overturned many of Alaska’s most important limits on campaign contributions.

The order clears the way for those limits to be lifted later this fall, ahead of next year’s municipal and state races.

In July, three of the court’s judges — ruling as a panel — made three key decisions:

• There is no longer a $500 per-year limit on the amount of money an Alaskan can contribute to a particular candidate.

• There is no longer a $500 per-year limit on contributions to a political group.

• There is no longer a $3,000 limit on the amount of money a candidate can accept from all out-of-state donors combined in a given year.

The judges upheld a $5,000 limit on the amount of money a political party can give to a municipal election candidate.

All of those limits were part of a 2006 ballot measure, but the federal judges ended almost six years of legal arguments by saying those limits unconstitutionally limit the free-speech rights of political donors.

The ruling suggested that revised limits could pass constitutional muster, but adding those new limits would require action by the Alaska Legislature or a new ballot measure.

Senate Democrats and gubernatorial candidate Les Gara asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy to add the issue to the agenda of a fall special session, but the governor declined to do so.

Any new ballot measure could not be enacted before the 2022 election, and ongoing deadlock in the Legislature makes action unlikely. Even under ideal circumstances, legislative action would likely require several months, time in which donations would be uncapped.

The court’s final mandate is expected in a week, and the Alaska Public Offices Commission will release new rules afterward, but the ruling is already having an impact.

Earlier this month, the commission — in charge of enforcing campaign finance laws — declined to fine Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson for accepting contributions above the limit.

“Because the commission recognizes the high likelihood that the ruling ... could soon become final, the commission does not impose penalties for these violations,” it wrote.

Once issued, the court’s mandate will conclude almost six years of litigation that saw a Republican-led lawsuit travel through state courts, federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court and back to the 9th Circuit, where a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 against the Alaska limits.

Anchorage attorney Robin Brena represented the plaintiffs and said he doesn’t believe the ruling will significantly change how politics functions in Alaska.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that political donors may give unlimited contributions to third-party groups that may run ads and campaign on behalf of a candidate as long as they don’t directly coordinate with the candidate or their campaign.

The only difference now, Brena said, is that the candidate themselves will be in charge of the message, not an outside group.

Not everyone agrees with the court’s move.

In August, activist Sharman Haley said July’s decision “hammered three more nails into the coffin of democracy.” Haley and others held a protest in Anchorage urging the court to reconsider its action.

A judge on the 9th Circuit called for the case to be heard by the entire court, but in legal filings a month later, the state of Alaska said it was uninterested in pursuing that course of action.

Attorneys for the Alaska Department of Law, in charge of defending the state’s campaign finance laws, said further legal action could result in a stricter decision that reduces the Legislature’s ability to pass new limits.

“For these pragmatic reasons,” the state said it opposed further review.

After that briefing, the 9th Circuit judge dropped their call for further review, leading to Wednesday’s order.

Sponsored