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ANYBODY GOT A MATCH?

Minds much sharper than ours have observed that money is the mother's milk of politics. You might have the greatest ideas since former state Rep. Jeff Groscost gave that big boost to the alt-fuel vehicle market, but you're still going lose on Election Day if you can't communicate with the voters.

Here in Tucson, politicians have relied on the kindness of taxpayers through the city's matching-funds program, which provides a public dollar-for-dollar match of privately raised funds for city candidates who qualify by managing to take at least $10 out of a minimum of 200 city residents. Here's the catch: You have to agree to limit your spending. This year, City Council candidates have a budget of roughly $90,000--which isn't all that much in 2007 political dollars.

The stingy spending cap is one reason you don't see many TV ads during the city election cycle. Candidates can't afford all the other campaigning essentials--sending mailers, tracking early ballots, paying those smarty-pants strategists--and buy a whole bunch of expensive TV ads.

The matching-funds program got its start in the mid-'80s, when UA poli-sci prof Tom Volgy, the former mayor and councilman, cooked up the idea to control campaign costs. Voters approved the proposition in 1985, and candidates started using it in '87.

In recent years, the matching-funds program has been distorted by the emergence of independent campaign committees that raise money outside the public program and upset the level playing field. (Not that we buy into that whole level-playing-field malarkey--there are plenty of other elements, from name ID to incumbency to voter registration, that undermine the idea that an even bank account somehow makes things fair and square.)

But the independent campaign committees, which can easily raise six figures, have had an undeniable impact. In 2001, for example, the indie campaign Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, backed by developers and car dealers, spent about $84,000, with a big chunk of that mercilessly pounding Democrat Paula Aboud, which helped Republican Kathleen Dunbar win the Ward 3 seat despite the city's Democratic voter advantage.

Two years later, indie committee Independent People Like You spent more than $100,000 hammering Volgy when he unsuccessfully tried to make a comeback against Mayor Bob Walkup. A second indie, the Committee for Real Regional Transportation, spent about $116,000 beating up on a light-rail plan while smacking around Volgy on the side.

The Democrats finally wised up in 2005, with the Pima County Democratic Party and labor unions forming Tucsonans for Accountable Government, which spent more than $82,000 going after Dunbar and fellow Republican Fred Ronstadt, both of whom got clobbered on Election Day. In comparison, Tucsonans for Bipartisan Government spent about $68,000 backing the GOP candidates.

What's it all mean? We have an arms race, with indie committees spending as much as--if not more than--the candidates themselves.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Nina Trasoff, who knocked off Ronstadt with the help of Tucsonans for Accountable Government, wants to do something to reduce the indie campaigns' influence. At last week's study session, Trasoff proposed providing candidates who are using the city's publicly funded campaign program with additional dollars if an independent committee wades into the council campaigns.

Trasoff is dusting off an old Volgy proposal to give candidates 50 cents for every dollar that is spent by the indie committees. The big idea: Once the indie-campaign backers recognize that their efforts are putting more money into the pockets of candidates that they oppose, they'll cease and desist.

Well, maybe--but it's not as simple as Trasoff had hoped. Besides sorting out the details--like whether spending by political parties should be counted as an expenditure, or how often the indie committees would have to report their spending--the proposal needs voter approval.

Trasoff's preliminary research had led her to believe it didn't need a public vote in November's city election, but City Attorney Mike Rankin broke the bad news that any adjustment in spending limits needed a charter amendment. His punishment: He has a couple of weeks to come up with a memo on the council's options.

We're left wondering: Why the big deal over a public vote? It's all about democracy, right?


RETURN TO SENDER

Before tackling the matching-funds issue, the City Council briefly toyed with the idea of letting Tucson Water customers donate extra money to the matching-funds program.

Water customers used to be able to add a few cents--or even dollars--to their bills if they wanted to support the program, but it appears it wasn't all that appealing to folks, because it only raised about $3,000 a year.

In 2001, the council decided to ask customers to donate to an open-space acquisition fund instead. That proved to be a little more successful, collecting about $60,000 during the last five years.

Last week, council members asked if they could let customers have a choice between open space and the matching-funds program.

Tucson Water Deputy Director Marie Pearthree said the utility ran the numbers of that question back in 2001 and learned that it would cost an estimated $43,500 to modify the city's software and printing machines.

But that's a bargain compared to the other problem: The Tucson Water staff reported that there just wasn't enough room on the bill for a second box, so they'd have to add an entire page to the bill, which would mean the city would be mailing a 2-ounce envelope instead of a 1-ounce envelope. The estimated annual postage increase: $151,800. Yes, $151,800 a year--for a program that raises somewhere around $10,000 annually.

Do you get the feeling Tucson Water really doesn't want the hassle of adding that second box?

Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who said she was "beyond surprised" at the increased cost, made a motion to keep the water bill in its current form, at least until Tucson Water makes any other changes.


SLAUGHTER AT THE STATEHOUSE

Hear that shredding sound from the Arizona Legislature? That's the sound of bills dying as legislation hits the floor of the House and Senate.

And this will come as a shock to you: Very few of the survivors have been sponsored by Democrats.

But that pernicious little cable bill that would undermine the city of Tucson's negotiating position with Cox Communications remains alive. HB 2069 slipped out of the House on a 34-25 vote and is now headed for the Senate. Nearly all of the Southern Arizona House members hung together in opposition to the legislation, with the exception of Rep. Marian McClure of District 30, who supported it.


BEST-LAID PLANS

The Southern Arizona Leadership Council plans to announce plans to do more planning. Fresh from the success of the Regional Transportation Authority, the Leadership Council wants to have a big ol' town hall May 6-9 to talk about how to best handle regional issues like growth, water, transportation, workforce development, health care, education and the decline of the UA men's basketball team.

OK, we're making the last one up.

"We're trying to begin a process that will unfold over the next few years," says former UA prez Peter Likins, who will be the ringleader of this particular circus.

The Leadership Council wants to bring together 150 folks to hammer out these issues--and they're even willing to consider Tucson Weekly readers. So if you're interested in tossing around ideas for four days in May up at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, you can apply to join the team at tucson.com/townhall.

The cost is $100 , but if you can't afford it, scholarships will be available. Hurry: The deadline to apply is March 16.

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