By WIN GRUENING, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR
As the Alaska Legislature winds down to its 120-day constitutionally set window, most of us are focused on what is happening with the statewide budget and how it will impact our state and communities.
In other action, however, two legislative anti-corruption measures being considered deserve the public’s attention as well.
The two measures concern campaign finance and potential conflicts of interest.
These two measures (SB 5, “An Act prohibiting certain groups from soliciting and accepting contributions,” and HB 44, “An Act requiring a legislator to abstain from taking or withholding official action”) are being sponsored along party caucus lines.
How and why this is may be instructive.
In 1996, the Alaska Legislature adopted a campaign finance reform law that banned contributions to elected officials and candidates from business and unions and capped campaign contributions at $500 per individual. The new law also limited contributions that candidates could receive from registered lobbyists.
After a federal judge struck this law down on constitutional grounds, a subsequent Alaska Supreme Court decision upheld almost all its provisions as constitutional — including the prohibition of out-of-district lobbyist contributions.
Fast forward to 2016. Republican House member Gabrielle LeDoux found a way around these rules by creating a new committee, separate from her campaign, called Gabby’s Tuesday PAC. According to Alaska Public Office Commission (APOC) reports, she then raised $13,365 last year, much of it from lobbyists out of her district, and transferred committee money to the campaigns of other candidates.
When the Democratic Party filed a formal complaint about the PAC last year, APOC subsequently ruled that the PAC was legal but shared concerns raised by the complaint that it could be viewed as a “loophole” to circumvent the campaign contribution limits in state law.
However, APOC felt obliged to apply the law as enacted and left the issue in the hands of the Legislature to change, if desired.
But now things have changed. Rep. LeDoux is now a member of the Democratic-controlled majority coalition in the House so it was left to the Republican-controlled Senate to take this issue on.
Accordingly, Sen. Kevin Meyer sponsored a bill, SB 5, to do just that. It prohibits lobbyists from making campaign contributions to groups headed by a lawmaker living outside their election district. It also prohibits contributions to these groups while the Legislature is in session.
Two weeks ago, SB 5 passed the Senate unanimously on a bipartisan basis 20-0 and was sent to the House. It remains to be seen whether Rep. LeDoux, now chair of the powerful House Rules Committee, will allow the bill to ever reach a floor vote.
Meanwhile, the Democratic majority coalition in the House set their sights on Sen. Meyer with HB 44, sponsored by Rep. Jason Grenn. That bill would require, among other things, legislators to abstain from voting on issues that could “benefit” their employers. This sounds reasonable until you realize that it is intended to apply to anyone employed in the oil industry — which clearly targets Sen. Meyer and Sen. Peter Micciche — who both work for an oil company.
HB 44 passed the House along mostly party caucus lines 24-15 and was sent to the Senate for their consideration.
But this is a slippery slope.
One could argue that fisherman shouldn’t vote on legislation affecting the fishing industry and lawyers shouldn’t vote on any legal issue such as, say, tort reform. Even though they are self-employed, theoretically couldn’t their vote benefit them significantly?
Alaskans understand that a part-time citizen legislature implies that legislators are expected and permitted to earn outside income and there should not be unnecessary burdens discouraging citizens from government service. Otherwise, our legislature would eventually be limited to government workers and citizens who are retired, unemployed, or independently wealthy.
Voters were completely aware of the employment of Sen. Meyer and Sen. Micciche when they were elected and chose them partly because of their knowledge and expertise in the oil industry among other things. Does it make sense they would be prevented from voting on matters affecting the industry? Should we also apply this to any legislator who is an employee (or spouse of an employee) of a company working in the oil patch? Where does it end?
Surely the purpose of Alaska’s campaign finance and ethics laws are to restore the public’s trust in the electoral process and to foster good government. But often creating new laws just creates more loopholes.
Why not just provide voters the facts and let them decide?
Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.