Campaign finance changes could allow polls from lobbyists

Posted: Friday, February 23, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A proposed change to Alaska's campaign finance laws would create a loophole that could let lobbyists and corporations contribute polling data to political candidates, the head of the state's campaign watchdog agency said Thursday.

Senate Bill 109 was introduced by the Senate State Affairs Committee as a ''cleanup'' measure designed to bring the campaign finance and legislative ethics laws into compliance with common practice, said Joe Balash, an aide to the committee.

The bill is essentially a watered-down version of a bill vetoed last year by Gov. Tony Knowles that would have significantly loosened Alaska's tough campaign finance laws.

''I looked at the governor's veto letter and tried to pare those things out,'' said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, the committee's chairman.

However, the bill does include a provision adding some polls to the list of services not counted as campaign contributions. To qualify, the poll must be limited to issues and could not mention a candidate. Polls requested by candidates or designed to benefit a candidate would not qualify.

Nevertheless, the change rang alarm bells at the Alaska Public Offices Commission, said Brooke Miles, the commission's executive director. Miles raised two objections.

First, the bill could open a loophole for contributions to campaigns from lobbyists and corporations, a practice largely banned by the sweeping 1996 campaign finance reform law passed by the Legislature to ward off a citizens' initiative.

''For example, lobbyists could purchase issue polls and give them to certain legislators,'' Miles said. Lobbyists can only contribute to candidates in the district where the lobbyist lives. Corporations can't contribute at all.

Even if the poll was issues only, it could be politically valuable, and the public would never know the candidate had received assistance from a corporation or lobbyist, Miles said.

Second, the bill would put the public offices commission in the business of deciding which polls qualified for the exemption, Miles said. That poses problems because the design and results of campaign polling are typically secret and both pollsters and candidates would likely be reluctant to release the information.

''The commission is very concerned about trying to get into the content and construction of polls,'' Miles said.

The committee took no action on the bill.

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