Electronic campaign filing bill hits snag

A bill easing a requirement for certain political candidates to file campaign financial disclosure reports electronically hit a snag Monday, after previously sailing through both chambers of the Alaska Legislature.

House Bill 311 passed the Senate, but a change to the legislation was rejected by the House of Representatives.

While the bill has garnered virtually no attention, it is opposed by staff of the Alaska Public Offices Commission – the agency that oversees disclosure of campaign financing. Casey Kelly has more.

The House version of the bill, which passed on Friday, would delay the electronic reporting requirement by one year to February 2013, and exempt candidates who have no computer or broadband Internet access at their home. It would also prevent the Alaska Public Offices Commission from changing the manner or format of reporting requirements during an election cycle.

The Senate wanted to go further, preventing APOC from making changes to reporting requirements for sitting lawmakers during the tenure of their term in office. But Anchorage Republican Representative Mike Hawker said that was taking things too far.

“Speaking with many members of this body that is perhaps a bit aggressive, perhaps a bit strident,” Hawker said on the House floor.

The House rejected the change 33-0. If the Senate does not agree to drop it, the two sides will hash out their differences in a conference committee.

The bill breezed through both chambers ahead of a Wednesday (2/15) deadline for candidates to file their first financial disclosure statements of the 2012 election cycle. Senate President Gary Stevens – a Kodiak Republican – said some lawmakers have had difficulty with the new electronic reporting system being implemented by APOC.

“I think this could have a daunting impact on legislators,” Stevens said. “I mean, I’m in my 12th year in the legislature and I’ve always sent these things in – mailed them in – and I’ve always typed them out so they’re easily readable, easily scan-able, and are available the next day to the public. I know others hire people to do this for them. That shouldn’t be the case. You shouldn’t have to go out hire someone to do this report for you. We should be able to do it ourselves.”

The legislature put the electronic filing requirement on the books with 2007 Comprehensive Ethics Reform Act, though it hasn’t been enforced while APOC staff worked to get the system up and running.

APOC Executive Director Paul Dauphinais says his staff has been working for more than a year on the system and held several training sessions to walk people through the process.

“We’ve had all kinds of trainings where people were there in person, they can attend via Go-to-meeting, and they can attend via just a telephone, where they can listen in,” said Dauphinais. “We’ve trained over 300 people.”

The law already provides an exemption to the electronic reporting requirement for municipal candidates in communities with less than 15-thousand people, as well as candidates who have an emergency, or who don’t intend to raise and spend more than 5-thousand dollars during their campaign.

Dauphinais says HB 311 weakens transparency by broadening the exemptions for candidates who have no computer or Internet access at their residence.

“All the money that’s been spent on trying to bring electronic filing to bear – something that 34 other states in the union have mandatory for their candidates – in many cases it’s going to be optional now,” Dauphinais said. “And I would say in a large number of cases it will not be required.”

Dauphinais expressed his concerns to the House State Affairs Committee last week and the Senate Rules Committee on Monday. But members pushed the bill forward, pointing to a requirement that APOC staff post copies of the disclosure forms submitted in alternative formats to the commission’s website within two days of being filed.

Dauphinais says staff will not be able to catch mistakes that would be flagged by the electronic system, and those documents won’t be as easily searchable.

“Particularly toward the last few days of a primary or general election, or a municipal election, it makes it more difficult with all kinds of candidates filing to get those reports up in a timely manner,” said Dauphinais. “Then it’s very difficult for the public to put the pieces together. Because when we scan a document, it’s a PDF and that’s all you see. You can’t look at it in relation to another. It’s not on a database where you can put the last report with this report and see how the money flows.”

The Public Offices Commission itself has not reviewed HB 311 or given the legislature any input on the bill. Dauphinais speaks for the commission’s staff, which is responsible for investigating campaign disclosure complaints.

The full Senate will convene Tuesday, and can either agree to drop its proposed change to the House bill, or appoint members to the conference committee. The House conference committee members are Hawker, Anchorage Republican Craig Johnson, and Juneau Democrat Beth Kerttula.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday at its Anchorage office to discuss House Bill 311. The commission will also be taking public comment on the bill. The meeting starts at 10 a.m. and can be heard via teleconference at 1-800-315-6338, Code 4176#1.

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