On Monday, the Alaska Public Offices Commission – the state’s law enforcement authority for campaign finance and lobbying – imposed a significant fine on Mayor Dave Bronson for serious reporting issues related to the financing of his campaign. The group found that Bronson’s campaign filed late reports, misreported, or failed to report tens of thousands of dollars in campaign spending, and received donations in excess of Alaska’s legal limits of several people. The APOC fined Bronson’s campaign $ 38,500, on top of the $ 33,500 it fined him in August for failing to report contributions in a timely manner.
For most of us, $ 72,000 is no small amount – debt of this size would seriously hamper the average Alaskan family. But when it comes to politics, the pockets are often deep enough that such a fine, while unwanted, might well be considered the cost of doing business. After all, Bronson won his race, so any fines the campaign incurs are water under the bridge when it comes to achieving his end goal. And surely a sitting mayor – even if his campaign does not have enough cash on hand to dispense with the fine immediately – will be able to raise money to pay down debt with little difficulty.
That’s not to say Bronson wouldn’t have won the race anyway, or that campaign staff intentionally misreported the finances. As the saying goes, known as Hanlon’s Razor, “never attribute to wickedness what can adequately be explained by incompetence.” Campaigns are hectic, and if campaigns don’t keep a good track of their income and outputs, it’s easy to make even big mistakes in reporting. And if the end result is only a fine payable once the dust settles in the race, campaign managers might well ask: why bother to be scrupulous in their reporting when there are a hundred others? ways to spend time and money that would be more effective in getting more votes?
The problem, of course, is that these financial disclosures, overseen by APOC, are the only window the public has of who is paying for campaigns – and who is being paid by them. Without this oversight, we cannot be sure that candidates are not taking illegal contributions, spreading dirty and unattributed ads, and all the other batons that exist on the fringes of our political system.
And right now, APOC does not have the authority or the resources to punish violations – and stop them – when they occur. Imagine if there was an instant replay in pro sports, but instead of pausing the game to make sure the right call was made, league officials watched the tape of the match a week later. and fined the offending teams 1,000 dollars but left everything from touchdowns to completed passes to the game’s final score intact? This is the system we have now for regulating campaign finance in Alaska, and it’s no wonder campaigns often don’t pay more attention to their accounting. All reactive punishments only teach the campaigns what they need to build a sufficient war fund of donations that fines don’t matter.
In defense of APOC, he was crippled, either by accident or on purpose, by state lawmakers. Ten years ago, the agency’s budget allocation was just under $ 1.5 million, funding 14 staff. This may seem like enough to handle campaign finance laws in Alaska, but the group trains candidates, state and municipal officials, and their staff in reporting, processing and verifying thousands of errors. reports per year, maintains an online state database where Alaskans can reference them. , and fields, investigates and adjudicates dozens of election-related complaints. Even in 2011, near the peak of Alaska’s oil-fueled budget largesse, APOC’s budget was a paltry sum.
So what is APOC’s budget now? Much less than ten years ago, a total of $ 920,000. Seven employees. Most importantly, the allocation for the APOC Board of Directors only allows for 10 meetings per year. Meanwhile, the proliferation of SuperPACs and independent spending groups has made the task of keeping tabs on campaign finance much more complex, as has a court ruling lifting donation limits lower than the United States in Alaska. And these independent groups, by design, obscure the image of where a candidate’s support comes from. This all adds up to a system in which APOC has to delay action long after it matters.
Is there a solution ? Sure. For starters, APOC is underfunded if we are to be able to act quickly, when campaigns are underway and fines or other penalties could make a difference. More money is needed if we want finance laws to be applied proactively and not reactively.
But simply pouring more money into the agency is not enough. APOC also needs the authority to act quickly and stop violations while campaigns are underway. Imagine a version of the commission that has the power and the means to summon campaign representatives from both sides of a complaint and act on it within 48 hours of its filing in the last 30 days of a campaign – by imposing fines, pulling illegal advertisements, demanding better disclosure. Having an agency that could determine if bad behavior is occurring, indeed in real time, would be of tremendous value in building and maintaining Alaskan confidence in our elections. The commission would also be in a better position to put an end to frivolous complaints intended to mislead the tribunal of public opinion, which often go unanswered until after election day, just like those which have merit.
Both elements of this solution for a better-equipped APOC require a push from the legislature to get there, which has been a sticking point so far – lawmakers who benefit from lax oversight may be reluctant to give yourself stricter rules to follow. But public pressure to do the right thing – coupled with the threat of an initiative if it doesn’t follow through – can work wonders. Regardless of our political stripes, we should all be able to support a more functional system aimed at maintaining fair races and fair elections.