Aimed at PACs, lawmaker’s bill may hit political rival

Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer has a nightmare.

It involves credit card machines.

“What we don’t want is for people to have a Paypal or credit card machine during session and the lobbyist slides their credit card through before coming into the office,” he said. “They could legally do (that) now.”

Meyer is the creator of Senate Bill 5, which is ostensibly aimed a political fundraising practice but may end up hitting a political rival.

Last year, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, created a political action committee and began accepting donations.

These committees aren’t new. What was new was that it was a committee controlled by a legislator.

State law tightly regulates campaign contributions to lawmakers. Legislators can’t accept donations during the legislative session, for example, and they can’t take money from lobbyists, unless those lobbyists live in the district they represent.

Committees are also regulated, but loosely. They can take money during the legislative session. They can take money from almost anyone in the state, including lobbyists.

If a legislator controls a committee, that sets up a dangerous situation, Meyer said.

Lobbyists could contribute to a committee run by a lawmaker directly in response to that lawmaker’s actions.

“Even the appearance of this type of influence is unacceptable,” Meyer told the Senate State Affairs Committee on Jan. 31.

While the Alaska Public Offices Commission has ruled that a lawmaker’s committee cannot directly contribute to the lawmaker himself, that doesn’t prevent the lawmaker’s committee from donating to another lawmaker, who could then return the favor.

“It’s just a loophole that we just believe needs to be filled to try to eliminate the appearance of any corruption or appearance of wrongdoing,” Meyer said Friday.

SB 5, if signed into law as currently written, would prohibit lawmakers’ PACs from accepting money during the session, would prohibit lobbyists from making contributions, and it would prohibit the PAC from spending money during the session.

He said he would like to prohibit lawmakers from creating PACs altogether, but based on a memo from a lawyer, isn’t sure that’s legal.

“This bill is trying to mirror the current law that we have for us (individuals),” Meyer told the Senate State Affairs Committee.

On Wednesday, the Alaska Public Offices Commission released the financial records of the only three Legislative PACs that have been set up thus far.

LeDoux’s “Gabby’s Tuesday PAC” reported receiving $26,065.60 between Feb. 1, 2016 and Feb. 1, 2017.

“Sustain Alaska Fund,” set up by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, reported receiving $7,714.05.

“Alaska Conservative Leadership PAC,” created by Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, recorded $1,435.01 in contributions.

The committees run by LeDoux and Seaton have not reported any contributions since the Legislature convened Jan. 17, but because the reporting period only runs through Feb. 1, there is limited data for the session.

Eastman’s PAC has reported a contribution since the session’s start: A $100 gift from a Talkeetna resident on Jan. 27.

By phone, Eastman said the goal of his committee is “not to take over the world or create some kind of new partisan spirit,” but to back people who are conservative and interested in office, but afraid of the hurdles put in front of candidates.

He invited scrutiny of the committee’s contributions and expenses and says he views financial contributions as a form of free speech.

“I’m not really happy with any of the political parties right now,” he said, and he views his PAC as an alternative to the traditional political party system.

To an extent, that’s true for LeDoux and Seaton as well, which is why Senate Bill 5 is more than just its text.

LeDoux and Seaton, though Republicans, are moderate members of the coalition majority that controls the House of Representatives. When they joined that coalition, along with Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, state party members voted 56-4 to pull all future support for them.

Chair of the Alaska Republican Party Tuckerman Babcock, in a letter to the three, said, “We are deeply offended and astonished that you have stabbed your supporters in the back.”

Speaking by phone on Friday, LeDoux said the goal of her PAC is to “support reasonable people who will do the right thing for the state.”

Her PAC has donated $1,000 each to the campaigns of Stutes, Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Anchorage, and Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham. It attempted to donate to the campaigns of Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, and Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Anchorage, but their campaigns refused the money.

LeDoux said she doesn’t see her actions as anything different from what political parties already do, and wishes she didn’t have to do it.

“If there was a way to take all of the money out of politics, that would be great, but that’s not the reality right now,” she said.

She called the attention to her PAC a distraction from other issues.

“This is a diversion so we’re not concentrating on those larger conflicts of interest that really do have an impact on the Legislature,” she said.

As SB 5 advances in the Senate, Grenn has — in the House — proposed a law that would make it more difficult for a lawmaker with a declared conflict of interest to vote on a bill related to that conflict.

Right now, it only takes one lawmaker to speak up and allow a commercial fisherman to vote on a fishing bill, or an oil worker to vote on a bill affecting the oil and gas industry. House Bill 44 would require a majority vote instead.

If SB 5 is seen as targeting LeDoux and her allies, HB 44 is seen as targeting Meyer, who is employed by ConocoPhillips Alaska.

LeDoux is chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, in charge of deciding which bills reach the House floor for a vote of the full body. Meyer is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, in charge of doing the same in the Senate.

LeDoux and Meyer each denied that HB 44 and SB 5 are guns pointed in the opposite direction. Each called their body’s bill a sensible and simple approach to avoid corruption.

“I think it’s a pretty simple bill. We’re just filling a loophole that was an oversight back in 1996,” Meyer said.

“That’s not an accurate description,” LeDoux said. “If you like something, it’s not a loophole. If you don’t like something, it’s not a loophole.”

She suggested that if Meyer is concerned about corruption, he might consider taking action.

“Since this is what Sen. Meyer is so concerned about, I wish, I really wish that when Jason Grenn’s bill comes over to the Senate, that he would co-sponsor it,” she said.

Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 419-7732.

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