Jan. 22, 2002 The Anchorage Daily News on campaign finance veto

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2002

Despite Gov. Tony Knowles' best effort, the Legislature's Republican majority overrode his most important veto. Without a single vote to spare, the Legislature rammed through a bill that reopens the door to big-money influence peddling in Alaska elections. The decision to let individuals make unlimited ''soft money'' donations to political parties for ''party building'' activities was an almost unanimous party-line vote. All but one Republican voted to override; all but one Democrat voted to sustain.

Alaska once had one of the tightest set of campaign finance laws, including a $5,000 limit on what individuals could give political parties. With the new soft money loophole, business executives and other wealthy individuals are free to hand out much bigger checks in pursuit of more political influence.

The task now is to limit the damage from legalizing soft money. In theory, soft money is restricted to promoting a political party and cannot be used to help individual candidates. In practice, that line is easily evaded or crossed. At the federal level, for example, soft money is allowed to pay for ads that mention a candidate by name, as long as they don't come right out and say ''Elect Joe Schmoe'' or ''Vote against Jane Woe.''

Setting tight limits to prevent that abuse of soft money is important, and the rules must be vigorously policed. Otherwise, the state's remaining campaign contribution limits have no bite.

Logically, the job of policing soft money spending falls to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, the state campaign watchdog agency. Director Brooke Miles, however, says it's not clear what authority the agency may have to police how soft money is used.

The veto override that opened this soft money loophole hinged on one man: Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson. He and one other Republican, Rep. Andrew Halcro, had voted against the bill when it was first passed. But when the veto override vote came around, Rep. Hudson switched sides, becoming the 40th and final vote needed to overcome Gov. Knowles' opposition.

Why did he switch? He told the Daily News that supporters of the bill convinced him that soft money collected by parties cannot and will not be used to support individual candidates.

If true, that would limit (but not eliminate) the corrupting influence of the new soft money loophole. Unfortunately, nothing in the new law or existing law clearly empowers any agency to enforce this important limit.

Alaska's previous campaign finance rules made it through the Legislature only because lawmakers wanted to head off an even stronger voter initiative that was sure to pass. To stem the soft money abuses that are sure to follow the new law, Alaska voters may have to push the reform themselves by launching another petition drive.

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