Campaign finance regulators revive contribution limits following lawsuit

Halloween may over but Alaska’s campaign contribution limits have been reanimated.

Following a court ruling that struck down Alaska’s voter-approved campaign contribution limits as an overly strict limitation on speech, the Alaska Public Offices Commission today released an advisory opinion that reinstates campaign contributions at a higher level in accordance with the ruling. It’s an advisory opinion that will be in effect at least until APOC’s commissioners meet to review it at its January meeting.

The appeals court ruling didn’t find that all limitations on contributions directly to candidates or PACs were inherently unconstitutional, just that the $500 annual limit set by voter initiative in 2006 was too strict. It upheld other limits and suggested that the per-candidate contribution limit could be reinstated if it were increased and tied to inflation.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission agreed in today’s advisory opinion, which itself was a response to a question of whether the ruling opened the doors to unlimited campaign contributions. APOC argues that there’s nothing that would support completely unlimited contributions to candidates.

“To interpret the Court of Appeals’ decision in a manner that would allow for unlimited contributions from individuals to candidates and non-political party groups is inconsistent with historic practices that have recognized the roles that political parties play and that generally provide political parties greater latitude in terms of allowable activities and contribution limits,” explains the advisory opinion. “It is apparent that Alaskans are in favor of limitations on political contributions. It would be illogical to think that the voters who passed stricter limitations on contributions would now favor unlimited contributions.”

With that reasoning along with legal thinking called the “doctrine of revival”—the idea that a law struck down as unconstitutional would revert to the previous law, which would in this case be a $1,000 contribution approved by the Legislature in 2003—the agency sets forward new contribution limits. Attention had largely been on the Legislature to put forward a new law in response to the limits (which may have been a risky bet considering the Legislature’s divisions, especially around election laws), but this move serves as an alternative course of action to get limits back on the books.

The limits would cap contributions an individual can make to a candidate or non-party group (typically a PAC) at $1,500 per calendar year. It would also put a $3,000 limit on non-political party group-to-candidate contributions and non-political party group-to-non-political party group contributions. Both numbers were reached by taking the 2003 law and adjusting it for inflation for today’s dollars.

In a statement accompanying the release, the agency says the limits will be in place “until the commission rules otherwise or disapproves the opinion.” The commission could potentially change the limits or reject the limits altogether at its Jan. 26, 2022 meeting, and the action could also be potentially challenged in court.

But at least it appears that campaign limits are back on the books, for now.

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