On the Ballot in Alaska: Transparency
By Ali Eaves, Special to Stateline
In Alaska, a state that has had more than its share of political scandals, it's no surprise that an initiative aimed at cleaning up government made it onto the ballot this year. What's surprising is how many respected groups have lined up against it. Opponents of Proposition 1 include the AARP, the Alaska Municipal League and associations of police and firefighters. Both the state chamber of commerce and the AFL-CIO agree that the measure shouldn't pass. Even the city of Wasilla, whose most famous mayor rose to governor by crusading against corruption, has passed a resolution opposing the initiative.
The reasons have as much to do with the ballot initiative process itself as they do anyone's feelings about corruption. Proposition 1 is a classic case of a confusingly worded measure that would have broader consequences than its label suggests. What's more, the campaign behind it was financed by out-of-state groups associated with Howard Rich, a wealthy New York real estate developer who has a history of using initiatives to influence state policy and already has tried passing this one in Colorado and South Dakota.
To some Alaskans, the fight against Proposition 1 has morphed into a fight to guard their state's initiative process from those who would take advantage of its loopholes. Those loopholes already are beginning to close. The Legislature, responding to the fallout from other controversial initiatives, passed a law this year intended to bring more transparency to the initiative process.
Although the new rules don't apply to Proposition 1, the local sponsor, a group called Clean Team Alaska, abandoned its campaign in June. The measure will still appear on the August 24 ballot, however, and in the low-turnout environment of a primary election, anything can happen. So Proposition 1's critics aren't taking anything for granted. They're still planning on spending $1 million in their campaign against it. "What our opponents are or are not doing isn't actually relevant because it's actually already on the ballot," says Joelle Hall, director of operations of the Alaska AFL-CIO. "Alaskans are facing something that doesn't look like what it is."
The five-page initiative has two parts. One part would largely bar legislators or their staff members from taking jobs with government contractors for two years after leaving office. It also would restrict persons who hold government contracts — or their family members — from making campaign contributions to public officials. Additional restrictions would apply to anyone holding a no-bid government contract. In an e-mail to Stateline , Howard Rich said that holding a no-bid contract while funding the campaigns of those who hand out the contracts is "the very definition of corruption."
But other questions are being raised about ballot language that, in a tight-knit state with a small population, could have far-reaching implications. For example, even a seasonal snowplow driver could be considered a government contractor and thus barred from making political donations. And "immediate family members" snared in the net of fundraising restrictions includes grandparents, step-siblings, nieces, nephews and in-laws.
The initiative's second part is even more controversial. It takes aim at the use of public resources for lobbying activities. It also bans the payment of dues or membership fees to entities that engage in lobbying. According to an analysis by the state Legislature's legal division, this could prevent public employees from having their union dues deducted from their income; prevent employees of state agencies from talking with legislators about their agencies' needs; and prevent state officials from lobbying for federal dollars in Washington, D.C.
It also would most likely prevent local officials from lobbying state government. That's what has the municipal league, police and firefighters up in arms. Wayne Stevens, president of the state chamber of commerce, is sympathetic to their concerns. After all, the state capital, Juneau, is located on an island hundreds of miles from where most Alaskans live. "It can cost you $1,500 to get to Juneau," Stevens says. "Most elected officials who get a stipend of $200 a month can't reach into their own pocket to pay for the hotel, transportation and airfare."
According to Clean Team Alaska spokesman Jason Cline, the idea behind this part of the initiative is that "government should not be able to use tax dollars to lobby for more tax dollars." Cline calls that practice "an unsustainable cycle." While many people would philosophically agree with him on that point, labeling it corruption, as Proposition 1 does, is another matter. Which is why the ballot language has come under particular scrutiny from state officials.
The ballot language was approved back in 2007 by then-Lieutenant Governor (and now Governor) Sean Parnell. (In Alaska, the lieutenant governor oversees elections.) This spring, the Alaska Municipal League asked the state attorney general's office to weigh in on that language, arguing that it would be easy for voters to miss the initiative's full scope. The attorney general agreed. A memo to Craig Campbell, the new lieutenant governor, said it was important for voters to understand that the lobbying restrictions would apply to local governments and school districts. It also said the summary that would appear on the ballot should explicitly make clear that family members of government-contract holders would be barred from making political donations.
In May, Campbell took the suggestion and ruled that the ballot title and summary would have to change. Shortly afterward, Clean Team Alaska said it would suspend its campaign for Proposition 1. "Our entire campaign was built around that language," Cline says. "And the entire change was built around the opposition's campaign message."
According to Clean Team Alaska, the abrupt language change did not leave enough time to challenge the lieutenant governor's decision. But the simultaneous ruling of another state agency also may have weighed on Clean Team Alaska's decision to fold its campaign. In May, the Alaska Public Offices Commission, which regulates campaign finance, told Clean Team Alaska's funders — a 501(c)(4) nonprofit called Alaskans for Open Government — to register with the state and disclose its own donors.
Cline says that the increased state scrutiny scared funders away. According to the disclosure forms filed in June in response to the state's request, Alaskans for Open Government had only two funders to get scared. One was Americans for Limited Government, a nonprofit based in Fairfax, Virginia, whose chairman is Howard Rich. The other was the Legislative Education Action Drive, which shares the same address in Fairfax and has Rich as its president.
That was the case two years ago in Colorado, where voters approved a constitutional amendment containing the same anti-corruption language Alaska is voting on next month. A ballot committee called Clean Government Colorado received almost all of its funding from a 501(c)(4) called Colorado at Its Best. Only a year after the campaign, when IRS forms were filed and made public, did it become clear that Colorado at Its Best had received virtually all of its money from Rich's organizations: $920,000 from Americans for Limited Government, $540,000 from Legislative Education Action Drive and $100,000 from U.S. Term Limits. Although the amendment passed by a narrow margin, the Colorado Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in February.
The situation was similar in South Dakota, where a 2008 initiative was voted down after Rich's organizations spent at least $350,000 promoting exactly the same initiative now on the ballot in Alaska. The South Dakota Conservative Action Council, the 501(c)(4) behind that effort, sent $30,000 to Alaskans for Open Government in 2008, according to IRS forms.
The fight over Proposition 1 comes on the heels of another ballot measure that left some Alaskans questioning their initiative process. A 2008 initiative set out to create stricter water-pollution regulations for large mines, but was specifically targeted to shut down a planned copper and gold mine in Southwest Alaska. Both sides of the campaign faced a series of investigations into its donors. On the pro-initiative side, a case against Anchorage businessman Bob Gillam and several groups affiliated with him was settled out of court for $100,000. Gillam owns a lake house near the mine site and was accused of conspiring to hide more than $1.75 million in donations to the pro-initiative campaign. Just last month, the state issued subpoenas to several mining companies who funded the anti-initiative campaign.
That initiative battle was the most expensive campaign in Alaska history. In fact, spending on ballot-measure campaigns makes up 75 percent of all campaign spending in Alaska, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics . In the wake of the fiasco surrounding the clean-water initiative, the Legislature this year passed a law intended to bring more transparency to ballot measures. The law requires the lieutenant governor to hold a series of public hearings on each initiative. And it will require ballot-measure groups like Clean Team Alaska to disclose their donors earlier in the process. Under the old law, those groups didn't have to reveal their donors until the initiative application was approved by the lieutenant governor. The huge sums of money that can be spent on gathering signatures and advertising before then were invisible.
Of course, disclosing where financing comes from won't stop money from pouring into initiative campaigns, whether that money comes from in-state or out-of-state. But it will help bring controversial funding sources into the light when petitions are circulating, and help potential signers know the origin of a measure before it can be put on the ballot. "Sometimes," says Dan Smith, the political science professor, "the messenger is just an important as the message."