Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, holds his head in his hands as he talks to senators during a break in debate on the state budget Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
On May 18, the Alaska Legislature adjourned without passing new restrictions on financial donations to candidates for state office.
Because a federal court threw out Alaska’s old limits, the Legislature’s failure means candidates may accept unlimited amounts of money from donors inside and outside the state.
“It was probably one of the most disappointing nights of my time in the Legislature to not get to see that happen, because it should have happened,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
Legislative drafters finished work on a critical amendment in the closing hours of the session, but it never came up for a vote.
Alaska joins higher-spending states without limits
Alaska becomes the 10th state to operate without limits on candidate contributions, according to a list compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In those other states, campaigns generally spend much more than campaigns in Alaska do, even accounting for those state’s larger populations.
In Oregon, the two candidates running for governor in 2018 spent over $40 million. This year’s three-way race could top $100 million.
It’s too early to tell how the lack of limits will affect Alaska’s legislative races, say incumbents and prospective candidates.
“I don’t really buy into the arguments that one party or another can raise more money. I think everyone’s got deep pockets. And now it’s gonna be a matter of who’s best and most well-connected,” said Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage.
Wielechowski, who supported limits, said he believes there’s a “definite threat” that the lack of limits will affect results. One big donation could give a candidate a major fundraising advantage.
“I think statistically, the candidate that raises the most money wins 90% of the elections,” Wielechowski said.
Alaska could be different
But the donor pool for state legislative races, especially in Alaska, is smaller than it is for federal races and elections in other states.
Former Senate President Cathy Giessel, a Republican from South Anchorage, said she’s had a hard time raising money as she attempts to retake the Senate seat she lost in 2020.
Donors only have so much money, and an expensive Anchorage Assembly race this spring, plus competitive races this fall for U.S. House and U.S. Senate, may mean less cash available for legislative races.
“People have a limit on how much they can contribute to these kinds of things,” Giessel said. “I guess time will tell.”
Rep. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, announced on Thursday that he will run for state Senate. In the House last year, he voted against new limits.
“It just puts more responsibility upon the candidates to be responsible,” he said of the lack of contribution limits.
Candidates are required to publicly disclose their donations and donors to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, and Kaufman said publicity can have a positive effect.
“I think the solution is really sunlight,” he said.
If there are big donations to candidates, those won’t be public until mid-July, when prospective legislators file their first reports before the state primary, which occurs Aug. 16.
But because Alaska’s new elections system allows four candidates to advance from the primary, big donations and spending are more likely ahead of the November general election, candidates say.
Historically, few legislative races have had more than four candidates in the primary, and it isn’t clear whether that will change. The filing deadline is June 1.
A strategy that avoids sunlight
If there are no significant challenges until November, legislative candidates speculated that donors may wait to give money.
State law allows candidates to accrue debt ahead of a campaign, and a candidate could accept a large, last-day donation to pay that debt, avoiding public attention.
Alaska’s prior donation limits were established in a 2006 ballot measure approved by 73% of voters in the primary election that year.
In July, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruled that the limits established by that measure were unconstitutional because they violated the free speech of donors.
The most important of these restrictions was a $500 limit per candidate, per year, per donor.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration declined to appeal the decision, an act that could have put the court’s ruling on hold, at least temporarily, and Dunleavy himself said in March that he prefers to allow donors to give as much money as they want.
The federal court decision said Alaska’s old limits were unconstitutional, but its ruling suggested that higher limits, adjusted for inflation, could be constitutional.
Schrage, who represents a district in southeast Anchorage, was among the lawmakers who introduced bills containing new limits. Schrage’s bill was the one that advanced, passing the House by a single vote on March 16.
The bill was referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee, but it didn’t receive an immediate hearing. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Mike Shower, a Republican from Wasilla, was focused on election-security legislation, and much of the committee’s time was focused on that issue.
Speaking Thursday, Shower said Schrage repeatedly urged him to hear and advance the bill, but it wasn’t a priority for the leaders of the Senate’s Republican majority.
At the same time, Shower was hearing from other Republicans who were skeptical of imposing new limits at all, he said.
He said he asked Senate leaders repeatedly, as the session neared an end, whether the bill should be prioritized above others also seeking hearings, but he never received a firm response.
“It was not my intent to kill the bill,” he said.
With Schrage’s bill stuck in committee, members of the Senate Finance Committee took its language and inserted it into a separate elections-related piece of legislation.
That bill could have advanced to a vote and passed the Senate, but Wielechowski, Shower and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, believed Dunleavy would veto it.
To provide an incentive for Dunleavy to hold back, they agreed — with the help of Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage — to take elements of Shower’s election-integrity bill and amend them into the campaign-finance bill.
Dunleavy had championed election-security legislation during the session and considered it a priority. The four legislators picked parts of Shower’s bill that had bipartisan support and ordered legislative bill drafters to get to work.
“I think we had a deal. I felt very confident that we could have got a package deal done that would have had campaign finance reform and election reform,” Wielechowski said.
Wielechowski didn’t get a copy of the lengthy amendment until just before 11 p.m. on the last day of session, and by that point, it was too late.
“I said, I’ve been given minutes to look at something that we’ve now ripped apart,” Shower said. “I have no idea of the unintended consequences.”
Just as the Senate received a copy of the amendment, the state House voted against a larger energy relief check using money from a state savings account.
That proposal had been a priority of many Senate Republicans, and some had been attempting to bargain with House members by offering an exchange: The election bill in exchange for the relief check.
The failure of the relief check vote “took the wind out of the sails” of the election-bill discussion, Wielechowski said.
The Senate adjourned just before midnight, having never voted on campaign finance limits.
Schrage said he’s disappointed by the result, but he now has a new plan: He’s very likely to put forward a ballot measure proposing donation limits, something that would bypass the Legislature entirely.
That measure, if it receives the support of voters, couldn’t become effective until 2024 at the earliest.
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