A last-minute deal in the state Legislature to restore donation limits to Alaska’s political campaigns collapsed Wednesday, allowing wealthy donors to spend unlimited sums on state elections this year as good government advocates contemplate a citizens initiative to reimpose the caps.
“It was a devastating outcome,” said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who tried and failed to push limits through his chamber late Wednesday. “The ability of someone, anyone, in the United States to drop $1 million into an election is just stunning and startling, and should be of concern to every single Alaskan.”
Alaska had some of the lowest political donation limits in the country — $500 per person, per year — until last summer, when a federal appeals court ruled that the caps unconstitutionally restricted free speech.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration asked that the case not be reconsidered even when a judge called for a new hearing. And the governor later said he’s inclined to support unlimited donations, as long as they’re publicly disclosed.
One key opponent of campaign finance limits said Thursday he was pleased lawmakers didn’t restore caps this year. The result, he argued, is that more donations will go from donors directly to politicians, rather than to independently spending groups that are unaffiliated with candidates.
“I think the consequence will be that we’ll have a system that’s more responsive to the voters, and more transparent,” said attorney Robin Brena, whose firm represented the conservative activists who sued to remove the donation limits. “And I think those are good for our democracy.”
Alaska’s three leading gubernatorial candidates — Dunleavy, independent Bill Walker and Democrat Les Gara — are all now soliciting donations of $10,000 or more on their campaign websites.
But the new landscape for Alaska campaign contributions may not be permanent.
Many lawmakers still support reimposing higher limits than the ones the appeals court invalidated, making the subject likely to reappear during the next legislative session.
And Anchorage independent Rep. Calvin Schrage, who led the state House’s efforts to restore higher limits, said he’s now considering launching a citizens initiative — the same method that activists originally used to establish the $500 per person cap in 2006.
“I’m pretty darn confident I’ll go forward with that, because it’s just something Alaskans want,” Schrage said Thursday. “If the Legislature fails to act, we should make sure voters get a chance to stand up for Alaska and Alaskans.”
Lawmakers were, in fact, poised to act in the final hours of their session Wednesday, which was the constitutional deadline for the Legislature to finish its business.
A bill sponsored by Schrage, which would have capped donations from individuals at $2,000, had already passed the House. But it had stalled for two months in the Senate State Affairs Committee, chaired by Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower, who didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday.
As the Legislature’s deadline approached, Wielechowski said that he’d been working with a group of legislators, including Shower, on a deal to reinstate the donation limits.
Their idea was combining campaign finance caps, which tend to enjoy stronger support from liberal-leaning legislators, with a batch of election reform proposals that have bipartisan buy-in.
Those proposals included state-paid postage and enhanced tracking and security for absentee ballots, and open-source election software that skeptics could analyze themselves. There was also same-day voter registration, though those ballots would be scrutinized by a review board before being counted.
The package, Wielechowski said, had support from legislators in both the House and Senate. And the election reform provisions would have given the governor — who lawmakers feared would veto a standalone contribution limits bill — reason to sign it, since Dunleavy’s has pushed similar reform efforts itself.
“Both sides gave; both sides got,” Wielechowski said. “I’m fairly confident that it would have passed both bodies, and the governor would not have vetoed it.”
But the plan hit a hitch: For some reason, the state attorneys who draft bills for lawmakers took much longer than expected to write Wielechowski’s amendment.
As the clock ticked toward midnight without the document, Wielechowski said he called the lawyers repeatedly — at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. — before finally, on the line with the top attorney at 10 p.m., he strode into the Senate.
Wielechowski handed the phone to the chamber’s president, Peter Micciche, and asked Micciche to tell the attorneys to “send an amendment — I’ll leave out some of the more colorful language — right now.”
The document came through, Wielechowski said, just before 11 p.m. But a key Senate vote to bring the subject up for debate failed.
“It was late in the night and we had this major decision and we just didn’t have enough time to review it,” he said. “If it had gotten out by 5 or 6 o’clock, it would have passed and it would have been concurred with by the House and it would be on the governor’s desk.”
The result left supporters of contribution limits fuming.
Gara, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, blamed Dunleavy, the Republican governor, for declining to appeal the federal court decision. And he said Dunleavy — whose 2018 campaign benefited from a so-called “independent expenditure group” bankrolled largely by his brother, Francis Dunleavy, and a wealthy real estate developer, Bob Penney — would benefit.
“Dunleavy orchestrated the end of donation limits,” Gara said in a phone interview Thursday. “The guy who’s filed every lawsuit he could think of was too scared to file an appeal when our donation limits were struck down.”
Dunleavy, at a news conference Thursday, said the appeals court was responsible for eliminating Alaska’s donation limits; he added that “it was the Legislature that had discussions on that situation.”
“The idea that somehow I channeled this decision through the Ninth Circuit Court, and somehow I channeled this decision — it’s kind of flattering if people think I have that much power,” he said.
Asked if Dunleavy had collected any large contributions for his campaign, spokesman Andrew Jensen said he didn’t have access to fundraising details.
While Gara is soliciting five-figure contributions, he also declined to say whether he’d received any, though he stressed that he’s supported donation limits for his decades-long political career.
“I’m a guy who doesn’t believe in shooting at somebody for no good reason, but if somebody pulls out a gun, I guess I have to have a gun,” he said. “I have to play by these terrible, pathetic rules, and I now have to ask people to donate as much as they can.”
Walker, the independent, said he also supports campaign contribution limits.
“We look forward to picking it up on Day 1, and fixing what needs to be fixed,” he said in a phone interview.
Walker, too, declined to share details of any large donations to his campaign, saying he would reveal them when required by state regulators, in July.
But Brena, the attorney who worked on the lawsuit to overturn the contribution limits, acknowledged that he’d written a $25,000 check to Walker, who used to work at Brena’s law firm.
“I used to contribute through independent expenditure groups,” Brena said. “And now, I’m contributing directly.”