By Senator Kim Elton
July 18, 2007
Used to be just a concept in Alaska. Now it's a demonstrable reality: FBI raids on legislative offices; one legislator convicted of accepting bribes; charges pending against three others; one lobbyist guilty; rumors of more indictments; and the head of VECO and one of his Pooh-Bahs guilty of bribing elected officials to advance the interests of the oil industry.
In response, we tightened ethics laws that govern what officials can do after they are elected. It's time now to consider changing the way elected officials get elected. A bill introduced by colleagues in the Senate and an initiative promoted by Alaska voters propose an Alaska clean elections law based on measures already adopted in seven other states.
The clean election premise is simple: candidates can opt for public financing and opt out of having their campaigns financed by any mix of special interests. If they opt for public financing, they must demonstrate the viability of their campaign by collecting small donations to reach a small amount depending on the office sought. For example, if the initiative had been law when I last ran for re-election to the state Senate, I would have needed to collect $2,000 in donations of less than $100 in order to qualify for public financing (gubernatorial candidates need to collect $20,000, lite guv candidates $10,000, and House candidates $1,000).
Once qualified, a candidate gets state funding for the primary race and additional funds for the general election if they succeed in the primary. Again, if the initiative had been law in my last race for re-election to the Senate, I'd have been eligible for $24,000 in the primary and $36,000 in the general election ($250,000 and $500,000 for candidates for governor and $16,000 and $24,000 for House candidates). An additional kicker is that if a clean election candidate is locked in a campaign against a candidate who opts to run a campaign financed by themselves or large and small private donors, that clean election candidate gets an additional dollar for every dollar over the threshold raised by the candidate who opted out of the clean elections formula. That keeps the playing field level.
I want to pause here, to add some perspective. VECO executive-connected contributions to state candidates in the past decade totaled nearly $600,000. I suspect clean election candidates wouldn't even feel compelled to ask them for campaign assistance to demonstrate viability and, even if VECO executives did contribute to the $100 cap to demonstrate a lean election candidate's viability, that C-note will squeak far less loudly than their larger contributions may have over the last decade.
In addition to reducing the influence of special interests, clean election recipes have other beneficial effects. In Arizona, more candidates are running (the number of candidates is up 20 percent since implementation) and voter participation in state elections is higher (up 34 percent in non-presidential election years and up 7 percent in presidential election years). After four election cycles, 83 percent of Arizona voters now favor the system ( an aside here: 70 percent of Alaskans said they favor public financing according to a statewide poll conducted in March--prior to the VECO officials pleading guilty to bribing elected officials).
In Maine, the clean election system is also popular not just with voters but also with candidates. In 2002, 60 percent of the candidates opted for the clean election recipe and that rose to 81 percent in the 2006 election cycle. Imagine a state legislature dominated by legislators who did not finance their elections with special interest dollars.
The downside, of course, is clean elections creates new state spending. The initiative sponsors propose financing clean elections with a three cent tax per barrel of oil but I'm not quite there on the new tax. I'd argue that the amount spent on clean election campaigns is more than recouped because state budget and revenue decisions are not subtly or unsubtly influenced by the many special interests that now largely finance our elections. I'd also argue that VECO's influence on the dimensions of the state's new petroleum production tax cost us hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues.
The only bit of good news from the FBI raids, the bribery confessions, the conviction, and the other indictments is that we made good progress last session on laws that govern post-election behavior. But, if we want to really further improve the culture that grows in the legislative Petri dish, it's time to focus on pre-election changes--changes that now are working in Arizona, Maine, North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
(Much more information about the ins and outs and ups and downs of the bill introduced in the Senate (SB182) and the proposed initiative is available by Googling 'Alaska, clean elections'.)
Senator Kim Elton
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