Ballot propositions can be expensive fights, with hundreds of thousands — and even millions — of dollars spent. The Alaska Public Offices Commission, or APOC, is the group that tracks all that money. Yesterday, they ruled that groups can campaign for or against a pending referendum without declaring their expenditures, as long as they aren’t sponsoring it.
The differences between a referendum and an initiative are pretty technical. A referendum allows voters to strike down legislation, while an initiative allows them to draft their own policy. But in the end, they’re both items that appear on the ballot that allow citizens to shape the law themselves. And so, they were mostly treated the same under law.
Here’s Thomas Lucas, an attorney with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
“It used to be that for referendums, initiatives, and recalls, the same reporting requirements applied to a group that was sponsoring any one of those.”
That changed in 2010, when the legislature changed the law so that people fighting an initiative would have to declare things like their expenditures and who was giving them money even during the signature gathering phase. They didn’t make a similar change for referenda.
“It does seem to be that the two groups are treated differently for no apparent reason.”
That’s Pat Lavin. He’s one of the organizers of a referendum to repeal legislation lowering taxes on oil companies. They’re still collecting signatures, but if they get enough, it’ll be the first referendum on the ballot in over a dozen years.
The oil tax cut is expected to be at least $3 billion over the next five years. Given the high stakes, two industry-supported groups are already campaigning against the referendum. Lavin thinks it’s unfair that they don’t need to do any financial disclosures. He describes it in David and Goliath terms, where a citizens movement has to play by stricter rules.
“The other side, they don’t need to. So, it’s definitely an uneven playing field in terms of who’s required to report at all.”
While referendum opponents get some advantage from the discrepancy in the rules, it still caught them by surprise. Renee Limoge is the treasurer of We Are Alaska, an anti-referendum group backed by the Alaska Support Industry Alliance.
“Honestly, we had never looked at the statutes for referendums until this happened. Everybody was really unclear on what was going to happen, including APOC.”
So, We Are Alaska asked for an opinion from APOC on how they should proceed. In an order issued on Wednesday, APOC concluded that the law doesn’t require them to file regular reports until the referendum is certified by the Division of Elections. Until then, they can spend money opposing the repeal without declaring it.
Limoge says she’s glad to have some clarity on the matter, but that We Are Alaska plans to submit financial reports anyway.
“We are going to file the reports, even though we are not required to, because we do believe that the public has a right to know who is behind this activity. We certainly have nothing to hide in that regard.”
We Are Alaska plans to start submitting reports in July, when the repeal movement hits the deadline for the signature-gathering phase of the referendum process.