Politics

Alaska campaign regulators propose higher donation limits to avoid limitless elections

Staff members of the Alaska Public Offices Commission have proposed new limits on contributions to political campaigns, one week after a federal appeals court confirmed that it will not review a ruling that overturned the state’s prior limits.

Under the new limits, released Wednesday in an advisory opinion, an individual would be limited to $1,500 in donations per candidate or group, per year. That’s up from $500.

A group would be limited to $3,000 in donations per candidate or group per year. That’s increased from $1,000.

The new limits are subject to approval of the five-member commission, which isn’t scheduled to meet until January. Commission Chair Anne Helzer said the commission will likely hold a special meeting before then to decide whether to approve the new proposal.

In the meantime, campaigns and candidates are required to follow the new proposal and could be subject to an official complaint and investigation if they violate its limits.

If the commission rejects the new limits, any complaints may be dismissed.

Robin Brena is an Anchorage attorney who successfully challenged the prior limits and opposes restrictions on campaign contributions as a matter of free speech. He disagreed with the legal basis used to set the new limits and said APOC staff’s proposal is questionable.

“They don’t have the legislative authority necessary, or the right to legislate, changes to prior law. And a significant portion of their analysis seems to rest upon an improper reading of the 9th Circuit case,” he said, referring to the July decision that overturned the old limits.

He said he doesn’t yet know whether he would challenge these new limits in court but is “already talking to folks about it.”

Former Anchorage Assembly member Eric Croft co-sponsored a 2006 ballot measure that set the old limits and disagrees with the belief that political spending is speech. But Croft said that on first impression, he did think APOC’s new proposal is “somewhat dubious on its authority.”

Wednesday’s proposal from APOC staff relies on the belief that Alaska’s old campaign finance limits were restored when the federal judges overturned the restrictions imposed by the 2006 ballot measure.

APOC staff’s new order then takes a second step, adjusting those old campaign contribution limits for inflation to get $1,500 for individuals and $3,000 for groups.

Attorneys familiar with Alaska’s campaign finance laws had said earlier this year that they believed that the federal judges’ action would result in the removal of all limits on donations.

APOC staff disagreed.

“To interpret the Court of Appeals’ decision in a manner that would allow for unlimited contributions from individuals to candidates and non-political party groups is inconsistent with historic practices,” APOC staff said in Wednesday’s opinion.

The Alaska Department of Law did not respond Wednesday to questions asking whether it agrees with that interpretation.

Tom Lucas, the principal APOC staffer on campaign issues, said the legal principle APOC used to back up its new proposal for campaign contribution limits, called “the doctrine of revival,” has not been considered before by Alaska courts.

Brena argued APOC’s interpretation doesn’t make sense. If commission staff make that adjustment, they’re acknowledging that the old law is itself unconstitutional, he said, and it isn’t clear they have the power to make that adjustment in the first place.

“They’re trying to resurrect a law that by their own analysis is unconstitutional,” he said.

Brena said he believes the arguments over campaign finance limits are free speech debates. Limiting contributions limits free speech, he said.

Croft said he sees it differently. He said Alaska is only a few years removed from the VECO bribery scandal and believes Alaskans still support having strict limits on the amount of money that individuals can give to politicians.

“I don’t think it’s correct to equate how much money I have to my right to speak. Nobody’s restricting the candidates’ right to say anything they want,” he said.

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