The Clean Elections program might not be dead, but it sure looks like it's lying in the corner and coughing up blood.
An effort to reform the voter-approved program—which provides candidates for state office with public funds for their campaigns as long as they agree to certain spending limits—collapsed in the final hours of this year's legislative session, which ended after a marathon all-nighter last week.
If lawmakers don't come back into special session in the near future to revive the reform package, candidates in competitive races will likely steer clear of the program.
Under the current rules, Clean Elections bankrolls qualifying candidates with a set amount of money; gubernatorial candidates, for example, are eligible for $707,447 for the primary and $1,061,171 for the general election, while legislative candidates get $14,319 for the primary and $21,479 for the general.
But if a nonparticipating candidate—raising money in the traditional way—spends more than the limit, the program seeks to level the playing field by providing matching funds, up to the three times the original provided amount.
The trouble for Clean Elections began last year, when U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver issued a preliminary ruling that the program's matching-funds provision was unconstitutional. The case is still making its way through Silver's courtroom and is likely to be tied up in the courts for years to come, but unless she reverses her initial ruling, Silver is likely to eventually order that matching funds no longer be issued.
Given the uncertainty, candidates in competitive races—particularly in expensive statewide contests—will likely decide to raise private funds rather than limit their spending at the lower threshold and possibly see themselves outspent by privately funded opponents.
In an attempt to fix the problem, Clean Elections supporters proposed House Bill 2603, which would have eliminated matching funds altogether while doubling the amount of money available for statewide candidates and increasing the amount of money that legislative candidates received at the start of their campaigns by 50 percent. Gubernatorial candidates would have received $1,414,894 for their primaries, while legislative candidates would have been eligible for $21,478.
Sen. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican who has been critical of Clean Elections, nonetheless tried to get the reform package through the Senate.
"I want to make it clear that I oppose Clean Elections, but whether you like Clean Elections or not, it does everyone a disservice as long we don't know how it's going to work," Paton says. "With several high-profile races, including a governor's race, coming up, it seemed like a smart idea to have some kind of certainty to know what was going on."
But Paton insisted the bill should only extend the system for two years. And, as a candidate who raises money traditionally, he wanted something for nonparticipating candidates, so part of the legislation called for increasing the limits on what individuals could give them, from $390 to $615. Certain political action committees would be able to give $4,160, up from $1,600.
Todd Lang, the executive director of the Citizens Clean Election Commission, says he had little choice but to support the increases for privately funded candidates.
"That's the difference between a legislative compromise and a voter initiative," Lang says. "You have to give up a lot to get what you want."
But on the morning of Wednesday, July 1, as tired lawmakers greeted dawn at the Capitol, supporters were unable to get enough votes to pass the bill in the Senate.
With the collapse of the reform package, the future remains dim, unless Gov. Jan Brewer calls for a special session to specifically address Clean Elections.
"Clean Elections is dead right now," says Rep. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat. "That's the way it looks right now. Candidates in safe districts might use it, but if you're in a swing district, it's completely not a good thing to do, because people are going to put in money on the other side, and you're going to be in trouble."
Lang says he's holding out hope that Silver changes her mind and rules in the favor of Clean Elections and allows matching funds, but he acknowledges that candidates need "to know what the rules of the game are" if they're going to use the program.
No matter what happens with the Clean Elections reform package, Paton says he plans to keep pushing a proposed ballot referendum that nearly made it to voters this year. SCR 1025 would have asked voters to ban the use of public dollars on political campaigns. It passed the Senate and survived two House committees, but never came up for a final House vote.
"I'll bring it back next year," Paton says. "As a Republican, it seems disingenuous to me advocate for smaller government and then support a system to benefit yourself that expands government. It doesn't compute."