August 28

By Sean Maguire

A federal appeals court panel struck down some Alaska campaign contribution limits in late July, but that case could be reheard. In the meantime, the old restrictions are still in effect.

The three-member Ninth Circuit appeals court panel said some state campaign limits violate the First Amendment and are unconstitutional, including:

The $500 per year contribution limit from individuals to candidates was struck down as was the $500 limit from individuals to election-related groups.
The panel affirmed an earlier decision to strike down the $3,000 cap from out-of-state contributors to candidates.
The $5,000 limit from a political party to a candidate was upheld as being valid.
Senate Democrats wrote to Gov. Mike Dunleavy one week later, asking that the state of Alaska appeal that decision. The Alaska Department of Law declined to seek further review.

Despite the lack of an appeal request, Chief Judge Sidney Thomas said earlier this month that there would be a vote on whether 10 judges should rehear the case. Each party was instructed to file briefs three weeks after Aug. 20.

With the future of state campaign contribution limits in doubt, the Alaska Public Offices Commission says the struck-down caps are still in effect. If the court declines to hear the case again, it’s unclear if there will be any limits on how much an Alaskan can give to a candidate.

Eleven states have no limits on those kinds of donations. Thirty-nine others have a range of caps with Alaska’s being close to the lowest.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said the Legislature should act to pass its own bill to set new maximums and suggested a $1,000 or $1,500-a-year limit from individuals to candidates that would increase with inflation.

“I don’t think anyone would really benefit or would want to see unlimited campaign contributions,” he said. “Wealthy individual donors giving hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions of dollars to candidates — that’s just unheard of in this state.”

Robin Brena, the attorney for the plaintiffs who challenged the state’s campaign rules, said he hadn’t spoken to his clients about what they would like to see but said that the decision sets the standard: The only reasonable limit is to prevent quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.

“There is no other legitimate state interest to pass a campaign limit,” Brena added.

He said the Citizens United decision is significant. The landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows unlimited contributions to Super PACs or independent expenditure groups as they’re known in Alaska.

“It seems silly to be overly restrictive with candidates and their campaigns,” Brena said.

Senate Democrats have asked that Dunleavy add campaign financing to the ongoing special session agenda. Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said legislators should debate the issue during the regular session that starts in January.

The majority opinion that struck down some Alaska campaign contribution limits suggested they benefit incumbents. Challengers could struggle to raise the same amount of money as they are at a disadvantage of being less well-known in the community, the opinion said.

In a dissent, Thomas cited evidence that Alaska is uniquely susceptible to corruption due to its reliance on the oil and gas industry for state revenue and the small size of the Legislature.

Wielechowski said that is a timely concern because there have been well-documented historical cases of corruption in Alaska politics and the Legislature is turning its attention to taxation policies. Gubernatorial candidates are also beginning to raise money for the general election in November of 2022, he added.