In a case brought by the Goldwater Institute, Silver didn't rule against the Clean Elections system itself, which provides qualifying candidates for state office with campaign dollars. But Silver said it violates the First Amendment to give participating candidates more money if their privately funded opponents break certain spending limits.
For example, most candidates for the Arizona Legislature get $12,921 if they can collect 220 $5 contributions from residents of their district. But if a traditionally funded candidate spends more money than that, Clean Elections gives participating candidates a dollar-for-dollar match. The match tops out at three times the original Clean Elections funding for the campaign.
That means some privately funded candidates wind up getting hosed. We've reported in recent weeks on the twists in the four-way GOP primary in Legislative District 30, which pitted two Clean Elections candidates, Sharon Collins and David Gowan, against two candidates who were raising money from private contributors, Doug Sposito and Frank Antenori.
By raising a respectable amount of money and lending his campaign $12,000, Sposito was able to spend $42,281, as of his most recent report. That meant his publicly funded opponents, Gowan and Collins, got a bundle in matching funds from the state.
Plus, Collins and Gowan benefited from a variety of independent committees that were spending money on Sposito's behalf. The Arizona Association of Realtors and the Arizona Cattlemen's Association spent a combined $14,239 backing Sposito, so Gowan and Collins got checks for that amount, too.
On top of that, Gowan got about $5,000 to match spending by a new independent committee, the Southern Arizona Government Action Committee, that was funded by a weird mix of homebuilders and payday lenders. The shadowy committee made phone calls on behalf of Sposito and Collins.
However, Antenori, who reported raising about $15,000 in his most recent report, was left out in the big cash giveaway, because he didn't participate in Clean Elections. That means his opponents have had a lot more money to introduce themselves to voters.
"My supporters now have had their voice reduced by the amount of money funneled to my opponents," Antenori says. "That's not fair."
We're going to press too early to let you know the impact of all the money on Election Day, but both Antenori and Sposito--who sparred on the campaign trail over the sources of their private funding--are among the plaintiffs in the suit against the matching-funds provision of Clean Elections.
Antenori, who says he didn't use Clean Elections as a matter of principle, says the lawsuit only targets the matching-funds provision.
"If you want to run on government funding, and you want to be a welfare candidate, that's fine, but that's all you're getting, regardless of what your opponents raise," Antenori says.
The matching-funds program has been a big source of mischief this election season. In one noteworthy example that was reported in the Phoenix New Times, Sam George, a Democrat running for the Arizona Corporation Commission, gamed the system by spending his own money in the Democratic primary. That meant his fellow Democrats got matching funds that they could all use to boost their name ID during the primary campaign--an advantage because three of the four Democrats running for ACC seats will continue through to the general election.
Silver ruled that Clean Elections would continue to provide matching funds through the primary, but left the door open to halting the additional funds for the upcoming general election.
If her ruling stands, it poses some serious questions for the future of Clean Elections.
It would be bad enough to be limited to spending, say, just $20,000 as a legislative candidate while a well-financed opponent spends $50,000 or even $100,000. But a candidate could still be competitive with that kind of money in a small legislative district.
Most statewide candidates, however, don't even start out with enough money to reach all of the voters in Arizona. This year, candidates for the Arizona Corporation Commission got an initial check for only $82,680 for their primaries. (Those who go on to the general election get an additional $124,020.) That's barely enough for a statewide mailer.
There's more money available for those running for higher offices, particularly for gubernatorial candidates. And the matching-funds provision has proved a powerful disincentive for statewide candidates to go the traditional route of raising money from private donors; after all, anything that they raise ends up getting matched for their opponent.
But if you knew that a gubernatorial candidate wasn't going to have more than, say, $800,000 or so in Clean Elections funding, you might be tempted to go ahead and raise $1.5 million for the race.
Whether Silver's ruling kills Clean Elections remains to be seen. But it's certainly been wounded by it.
Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, had demanded that Brewer, a Republican, include that minor fact in the ballot description of a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage. The ballot proposition, which barely got out of the Arizona Legislature earlier this year, seeks to amend the state Constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman.
Brewer had said that including the explanation that state law already limits marriage to one man and one woman would be confusing to voters--but in the face of legal action from Goddard, she caved in and agreed to his demand.
In the month of July, the state brought in $638.8 million less than it did in July 2007. That's a drop of 7.3 percent.
Even worse news: The total take was $88.9 million less than what had been previously forecast, meaning that the shaky budget that was passed at the end of June is already in trouble. Can we get more photo-radar cameras on the street soon enough to make up the difference?
Most of the shortfall--some $60 million--was in sales taxes, which were down 9.3 percent from the previous year. Analysts blamed most of that on the continuing decline of the housing market, which has put a big dent in contracting sales taxes.
Income tax collections were $19.3 million below forecast, and corporate income taxes were $10.3 million below forecast.
The money problems are hitting at the local level, too. As Rob O'Dell reported in the morning daily last week, City Manager Mike Hein expects the city to face a $10 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, based on lousy sales-tax numbers in the first two months.
How the city will balance the books remains to be seen--but they may want to revisit that bus-fare increase they rejected a few months ago.