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For anti-'gag law' group, the fight goes on

Patti Epler

Perhaps the biggest irony of the 2010 campaign season so far is that more money is being raised and spent to fight something that has no one fighting back than on any of the bare-knuckle political battles being waged before the Aug. 24 primary.

Ballot Measure No. 1 was billed as an effort to make government more transparent and accountable. But the group behind it, Alaskans for Open Government, suspended the campaign after state officials expanded the ballot question to include more of the details. The group also never disclosed who its major contributors were. Still, by then the measure had collected enough signatures to get on the ballot, and on the ballot it remains.

Once people started reading the fine print of the five-page initiative, they began to realize it did a lot more than just ban the use of public funds in political campaigns or prohibit legislators from going to work for government contractors for two years.

Josh Applebee, the campaign manager for anti-Measure 1 campaign, Stop the Gag Law, calls it "a series of rabbit holes."

For instance, no one with a government contract would be allowed to donate to political campaigns. Neither could their family members -- and the initiative defines those people as everyone from grandparents to nieces and nephews to stepsiblings and in-laws. Applebee says that could include the gas station owner in Cantwell who provides gas for the local state trooper and all of the gas station owner's family members.

The measure would prohibit use of public money for lobbying, but also has language that could keep a state employee from talking about concerns to a legislator, or keep local officials from lobbying state government.

Unions were particularly alarmed that they were considered contract holders and that the measure could outlaw union political action committees.

So, cognizant of the fact that many voters don't really read beyond the ballot title, unions, local government groups, business and trade organizations and civic groups joined together to keep it from passing.

As of July 26, the last date state reports had to be filed, Stop the Gag Law had raised more than $800,000, virtually all of it from the organizations that might be affected. The campaign committee reported it had spent about $776,000, mainly on TV ads aimed at convincing voters the measure may sound good but it's actually a bad idea.

The amount of money far surpasses that being raised and spent by gubernatorial candidates, particularly on the Republican side, where an incumbent governor is fending off strong challenges from two well-financed contenders.

And it's even exceeded the funds being collected and spent on another hot-button ballot measure, this one requiring parental notification before a girl under the age of 18 could get an abortion. Planned Parenthood groups from the western region have chipped in hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep that notion from becoming law.

For those trying to stop the government overhaul initiative, the fight has implications for the future and beyond Alaska as well.

"If we can beat this and beat it well, we won't have to see something like this again," Applebee said.

The measure is almost exactly like one that was defeated in South Dakota in 2008, and similar to one that passed in Colorado the same year. Other measures have been drafted in other states but didn't make the ballot for various reasons.

In Alaska, as in the other states, much of the money and energy fueling the initiatives has come from organizations headed by Howard Rich, an anti-union, Libertarian activist who years ago pushed measures for term limits, school choice and property rights across the country. Here, much of the money donated to Alaskans for Open Government came from Rich's Americans for Limited Government. Both of those groups were required to reveal their individual donors once Ballot Measure No. 1 made the ballot, but the June suspension of the campaign sidestepped that requirement. And a close-out report isn't due until September, well after the Aug. 24 primary.

Applebee said a decisive defeat should go a long way toward convincing Rich and his supporters that Alaskans aren't interested in this kind of government reform.

"We have to make this die, and make sure it's dead," he said.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.