Top taken off campaign spending limits

It appears the sky may soon be the limit on campaign donations in Alaska. In the case Thompson v. Hebdon, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down three provisions of Alaska law. With the chief justice dissenting, the two-judge majority overturned the $500 per-year limit on the amount of money an Alaskan can contribute to an individual candidate; the $500 per-year limit on contributions to a particular political group; and the $3,000 per-year limit on the amount of money a candidate can accept from all out-of-state donors combined.

The stated purpose of the 1996 law was “to restore the public’s trust in the electoral process and to foster good government.” That was the very year that a major corruption scandal emerged in Alaska. Six legislators were ultimately indicted for accepting bribes from Bill Allen of the oilfield services company Veco. The District Court cited this bit of history in support of its finding that Alaska is “highly, if not uniquely vulnerable, to corruption in politics and government,” due to the small size of our legislature and our heavy dependence on one major industry.

The Alaska Legislature raised the campaign contribution limits in 2003, however in 2006, a citizens’ initiative passed with 73% in favor to restore the stricter limits. Clearly, Alaskans want strong campaign finance laws. A poll recently conducted by The Alaskans for Better Elections and American Promise found that 72% of Alaskans still support limits on political spending.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, the Alaska Public Offices Commission stopped enforcing the state campaign finance law that limited contributions to Super PACs. The result: Between 2008 and 2018, unregulated independent expenditures increased from 3% to 36% of campaign spending in our state, and two-thirds of this new money was from Outside donors. Including the ballot measures, independent expenditures for the 2020 election exceeded $23 million.

No constitutional right is absolute. The big question now is, will our state legislature consider this issue important enough to correct the damage done? The Appellate Court is now considering whether to rehear the case with a larger panel of judges. And the legislature has the power to tweak the law adding inflation adjustments to the limits. But ultimately, to reclaim our right to write and enforce our own campaign finance laws, we will need to pass a Constitutional Amendment clarifying that money is not speech and corporations are not people under the First Amendment.

Beverly Churchill is a member of Alaska Move to Amend, whose mission includes educating Alaskans on constitutional issues regarding personhood and money as a form of free speech. This article is part of a series on campaign finance reform.

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