Ethics: Local legislators back campaign reform bills

No more gray areas

Posted: Monday, January 22, 2007

Kenai Peninsula state lawmakers are backing new bills aimed at curbing campaign contributions and spending.

Reps. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, and Paul Seaton, R-Homer, have signed on with eight other House Republicans in support of House Bill 6, a measure that limits to $500 the amount a group that is not a political party may contribute to a candidate or to a person running a write-in campaign.

The current limit is $1,000.

Olson said Friday that the bill would “level the playing field” for everyone, matching restrictions created by Ballot Measure 1, passed during the August primary election, that also limits the amount an individual can donate to $500.

Olson said he supports limitations on campaign contributions, but that there are really two issues involved — campaign reform and ethics.

“They overlap sometimes,” he said, adding that he and his colleagues had just sat through a daylong ethics training session Thursday and that it had not covered anything new.

“It’s virtually all common sense,” he said.

Olson predicted lawmakers would see at least a couple more bills related to ethics.

He called it a complicated issue, in part because he doesn’t believe a lawmaker can be legislated into being ethical. Lawmakers are presumed to be ethical when they arrive in Juneau to take up the duties of governing the state, he noted.

“People elected us on the basis that we would be honest and upright, and they should get that (from us),” he said. “Virtually everyone down here would like to get it formulated and have guidelines for anyone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Chenault and Olson also have signed on as co-sponsors of House Bill 20, a measure that would tighten rules for campaign contributions by requiring candidates to report not only the total amounts of contributions, but also the principal occupation and employer of each contributor.

It would make the same requirement of groups receiving and making campaign contributions.

HB 20 also would ban the spouses or domestic partners of legislators from receiving any consideration for engaging in lobbying, and prohibit anyone from hiring such persons to lobby for pay.

Finally, HB 20 would prohibit a legislator or legislative employee from entering into a contract to provide consulting services.

Chenault said Friday he wasn’t sure what the chances were for the reform measures, but expected they would be pretty good.

“Ethics is high on everybody’s priorities,” Chenault said. “We need to look at the different issues those bills are associated with and see if there is a way to tighten the requirements so that it’s not a gray area but more black and white so the public knows what legislators are doing.”

Regarding contributions by nonpolitical party groups like political action committees (PACs) or others, Chenault said last year’s campaign disclosure reports showed some lawmakers taking donations in the $40,000 to $50,000 range through PACs.

“Was that right or wrong? It was legal,” Chenault said.

Concerns about actual, or at least the public perception of, undue influence by corporations and unions making sizeable contributions to lawmakers’ campaign war chests have helped lead the Legislature to this latest effort at addressing campaign reform, Chenault said.

“That’s why I signed on,” he said. “If we are concerned about lobbyists buying you dinner, and that is considered undue influence, then we need to look at campaign contributions too, to make sure there is not a problem there.”

Controls over contracting and consulting also need to be tightened, he said.

“We have to try to police ourselves and when we see a problem or potential for conflict, we need to try to address that and ease the public’s mind as far as whether this or that is ethical or unethical,” Chenault said.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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