Gov. Tony Knowles has a tough call to make on the campaign finance reform bill passed by this year's Legislature. Though the bill makes useful changes, they are modest. The bill falls far short of what's needed to close the campaign law loophole known as issue ads.
On the plus side, SB 363 requires anyone running ads about candidates or ballot propositions to identify the sponsor. Anonymous ad campaigns would not be allowed. So-called issue ads that run within 30 days of a municipal or state general election, and that mention a candidate's position on a subject, would be treated as electioneering. That means they must be funded with money raised under Alaska's tight campaign financing laws.
The bill still leaves plenty of room for mischief with phony issue ads, though. Sponsors of those ads say they're exercising their First Amendment right to discuss a political issue of the day, so they are free to spend unlimited amounts of money raised from sources they don't have to name. In reality many so-called issue ads are thinly veiled endorsements of or opposition to a particular candidate. They should be covered by disclosure laws and limits on campaign contributions.
Earlier versions of this year's reform bill put much tighter limits on phony issue ads. Those versions used the ''walk like a duck'' test. If an ad ''is susceptible of no other reasonable interpretation'' except to endorse or oppose a candidate, it would be considered a campaign ad, which must be funded under state campaign laws.
That stricter test might have put the clamps on this summer's megadollar ad campaign attacking Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer. Why on earth would a national special interest group suddenly decide to air tens of thousands of dollars worth of ads alleging that outgoing Gov. Knowles and Lt. Gov. Ulmer have done a lousy job of running state government and the economy? Does Americans for Job Security really give a hoot about the security of Alaska jobs? Or does it want to make it harder for Lt. Gov. Ulmer, a Democrat, to win her race for governor against a Republican? If Lt. Gov. Ulmer were not running for office, do you suppose these ads would be running?
Of course not.
These ads aren't about issues; they're about this campaign. They should be subject to Alaska's election campaign laws. That means Americans for Job Security would have to form an Alaska subsidiary. It would have to raise 90 percent of the money for Alaska ads from Alaska residents. Contributions would be capped at $500 for individuals and $1,000 for Alaska political groups. Corporate and union donations would be banned. The group would have to disclose who contributes the money and how the money is spent. Americans for Job Security would have a hard time meeting those requirements.
A campaign reform that would stop such phony ''issue'' ads would be worth celebrating. SB 363 falls short of the mark.
Gov. Knowles could veto the bill and press for a stronger version at the upcoming special session. But the controversy over the anti-Knowles-Ulmer ads has infected the campaign reform debate with election-year partisanship.
The ads help Republican U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski's bid for governor. It's unlikely the veto-proof Republican majorities in the Legislature would do anything that might stop them. Better for Gov. Knowles to take today's modest reform and hope public pressure will force next year's Legislature to pass a real ban on phony issue ads.
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