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A voter leaves a polling station after voting in the municipal election in Calgary, Oct. 16, 2017.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

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New municipal election laws in Alberta will take effect at the start of 2021, and experts warn that the revised rules could usher in money from special-interest groups and potentially change the direction of local elections.

Revisions to the Local Authorities Election Act passed this year restrict the amount of money that third-party advertisers – such as labour unions, chambers of commerce and special-interest political groups – can accept, while exempting the groups from disclosing financials until after election day. It is the first time that limits have been placed on third-party groups, but critics say that the new legislation provides special interest and political action committees, or PACs, with too much flexibility to influence local votes.

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“Bringing in limits is the way to go, but the problem is that these limits don’t really address the issue practically,” said Barry Morishita, president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, adding that the new donation limit is too high to prevent political influence and that spending is not capped. “We saw some PACs that came out on both sides of the conversation during the provincial election, and that has a real legitimate chance of coming into municipal elections.”

Money from third-party political advertisers flooded into last year’s provincial election. Backed by large corporate and union donors, third-party groups such as the Alberta Federation of Labour and Shaping Alberta’s Future generated more than $1-million, which PACs used to campaign for candidates on both sides of the election. The surge in PAC involvement prompted calls for restrictions on third-party donations and spending.

Bill 45, introduced in early November, proposed a $30,000 donation limit to third-party advertisers. The amendments come into force on Jan. 1, 10 months before the province’s next round of municipal elections.

The previous NDP government banned corporate and union donations in municipal and school board elections, but allowed them to fund third-party advertisers. And there is no limit on what a third-party group can spend on their preferred party or candidates.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi warned that without more restrictive limits, an individual donor could outspend every candidate through third-party donations. After surveying smaller municipalities outside of Calgary and Edmonton, he found only one candidate who spent more than $30,000 on their campaign, an indicator that many local elections in Alberta require relatively little financial investment for a candidate to enter the race.

“It makes it harder and harder for challengers who don’t belong to one of those groups to run,” Mr. Nenshi said. “These PACs can sway the vote, but the more corrosive impact is that they require a bigger and bigger ticket to enter. That means that you have to spend more time fundraising, and less time meeting citizens.”

Alberta’s limits on third-party groups are high in comparison to other provinces. In Ontario, individual, corporate and union donations to third-party advertisers cannot exceed $1,200, and the maximum that a contributor can give to third parties registered in the same municipality is $5,000. Spending limits differ depending on the population size of the municipality, but are capped at a maximum of $25,000. Spending limits in British Columbia also vary by municipality, with the highest cap at $10,508 in Vancouver.

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“In Toronto, third-party advertisers can spend only $25,000, but in Alberta there’s no limit on how much third-party advertisers can spend and a donation to them is capped at $30,000,” said Joe Ceci, NDP critic for municipal affairs, adding that the proposed donation limit would allow third-party groups to influence local elections.

The act was previously updated in the fall, which increased the $4,000 individual donation limit per candidate to $5,000. It also removed the requirement for candidates to disclose their donors before election day.

The province is touting the amendments as a way to make processes more efficient, cut costs and make elections more inclusive.

“Before Bill 45 was passed, no limits were set for third-party advertisers, which is why we put in place a contribution limit of $30,000 per donor per third-party advertiser to ensure fairness and level the playing field,” Ministry of Municipal Affairs spokesperson Justin Marshall said in an e-mail statement.

But the lack of stricter limits and the new disclosure rules harm accountability, said Lori Williams, an associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University. By allowing these third-party advertisers to wait until after the election to report their financials, voters and journalists will not be able to find out the sources of financial influence on campaigns, she added.

“There’s all kinds of room for error and hidden influence,” Prof. Williams said. “Even though corporate and union donations were eliminated by the last government, this is the back door for them to get in and donate to a PAC without having that direct connection identified.”

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