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OPINION: Vague state law on spending excess campaign contributions needs overhaul

March 9th | By Dermot Cole Print this article   Email this article  

In 1995, more than 32,000 Alaskans signed a petition to put a campaign finance reform initiative on the ballot.

A section of the initiative would have created clear rules banning candidates from treating surplus campaign contributions as income.

One reason we don't have clear rules in Alaska on this today is because the initiative never made it to the ballot.

The Legislature rewrote the campaign finance reform plan, strengthening some provisions and winning the support of the initiative sponsors. But legislators also weakened the section about spending surplus campaign money.

A recent news story in Alaska Dispatch News detailed how some legislators are choosing to spend campaign contributions transferred to office expense accounts — on membership fees for Costco, Alaska Airlines lounge memberships, Rotary Club dues, campaign fundraising trips, campaign cellphones, a ceramic king salmon and a subscription to The New Yorker magazine.

About half the people in the Legislature set up these accounts and most spend the money entirely on "expenses associated with the candidate's serving as a member of the Legislature," which is what state law requires.

Admittedly, it's an ambiguous directive, long overdue for clarification, but some lawmakers are stretching the bounds of reason, spending money after losing an election or ignoring a clear ban on using money to travel to campaign events.

The regulations that go with the law include the following expenses as appropriate: flowers and cards for constituents, constituent mailings, office equipment and other items treated by the IRS as "bona fide expense of serving in public office."

The rules allow spending office account money on travel for "a state event related to the legislative office" and trips to Juneau and back.

There is no monitoring or enforcement by the Alaska Public Offices Commission about the accounts, even when the disclosure forms filed by candidates show an expense that contradicts the regulations. Budget cuts have turned the APOC into a hollow shell with a staff of six and eight vacant positions.

The section of the proposed initiative two decades ago that dealt with surplus contributions said candidates could have paid bills, repaid personal loans or directed the money to charity, a political party or the government.

There was little doubt that had the initiative reached the ballot, it would have passed, but the popularity of the measure created the pressure that led the Legislature to enact an aggressive campaign finance reform bill.

State law allows an initiative to be taken off the ballot if the Legislature approves a bill that is substantially similar. There was general agreement that Senate Bill 191 met that standard in 1996.

The move to limit the use of campaign contributions came in part because "under existing laws, candidates are completely free to convert campaign funds to personal income" and "there is great potential for bribery and political corruption," the Legislature said in its 1996 findings.

Prior to the law, candidates could treat campaign contributions as income. That has not been allowed for the past two decades and there are limits on transferring contributions to an office account: $10,000 for House members and $20,000 for senators.

The Legislature could improve the process by putting more precise language in the law about allowable expenses and providing the APOC with the resources necessary to enforce the lobbying, campaign and financial disclosure laws.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Media, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@reportalaska.com.

 


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