Clean Sweep

The state's program for public campaign financing suffered three major setbacks last week

Last week was rough for supporters of the state's beleaguered Clean Elections system.

First came a vote in the state Senate Judiciary Committee that advanced a bill that would ask voters to essentially cripple Clean Elections, which provides public funds for candidates for state office.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 1009, sponsored by committee chairman Jonathan Paton of Tucson, passed on a 4-2 vote last Tuesday, Jan. 19.

"I've never liked Clean Elections, but especially right now, while we're in the worst financial shape ever, the idea of using public money for junk mail and yard signs for politicians seems completely irresponsible," says Paton, a Republican who recently announced he would soon be leaving the Legislature to run for the congressional seat now held by Gabrielle Giffords. "We've had to make some tough choices to balance our budget, and I can't justify continuing having a program that continues to ask for welfare for politicians."

The legislation doesn't repeal Clean Elections outright, but instead focuses on an element that would likely have greater appeal to voters: amending the Arizona Constitution to ban the use of public dollars on political campaigns. That constitutional ban would overrule the legislation that allows the Citizens Clean Elections Commission to dole out funds to qualifying candidates for the Arizona Legislature, the governor's office and other state positions.

Todd Lang, the director of Arizona's Citizens Clean Elections Commission, says he thinks that will mislead voters into essentially repealing a program they themselves created with a ballot initiative in 1998.

"Obviously, we're opposed to it," Lang says. "But my biggest concern is that it doesn't give voters the chance to give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to the complete Clean Elections program."

Lang argues that the money for Clean Elections comes from fines on civil and criminal penalties rather than tax dollars. Although taxpayers have the option of giving additional support to the program, Clean Elections has actually given more money to the state than it has received from voluntary tax contributions.

Next week, for example, the Citizens Clean Elections Commission will give $10 million to the state's general fund, because they anticipate having a surplus beyond what's needed to pay for the 2010 election campaigns.

But Paton says that Clean Elections supporters deceive voters.

"'Clean Elections' is misleading, and I think what we really want to stop is giving public money to politicians," Paton says. "I don't have a problem with their debates or some of the other things that they do, and if they want to keep doing them, they can keep doing them."

Paton's legislation was just the start of Clean Elections' troubles.

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver released a ruling that prohibited Clean Elections from offering matching funds to publicly funded candidates. Under the Clean Elections program, candidates start out with a set amount for their campaigns. But if privately funded opponents spend more than that set amount, or independent campaigns weigh in against them, the Clean Elections candidates are eligible for a dollar-for-dollar match, up to three times the original amount.

Silver's decision to block matching funds came as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Goldwater Institute on behalf of candidates who said they had been put at an unfair disadvantage by matching funds.

Silver's ruling could prove troublesome for candidates who have already signed up to use Clean Elections, including Gov. Jan Brewer and state Treasurer Dean Martin, who are both seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination. (Interestingly, Martin was actually one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to block matching funds.)

Provided Brewer and Martin qualify for Clean Elections, both will get roughly $707,000 for their campaigns. But they could find themselves dramatically outspent by Buz Mills, the widely unknown gun-range owner who has put $2 million into his gubernatorial campaign and has told GOP insiders that he's willing to spend even more.

The Citizens Clean Elections Commission filed an appeal of Silver's decision, hoping that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will allow the matching funds to continue through the 2010 election cycle as the case moves through the court system.

"We don't want the rules changed in the middle of the game," Lang says. "There are candidates too far down the road to change it now."

A bill to temporarily increase the amount of money that Clean Elections candidates received in exchange for suspending matching funds died at the end of the 2009 legislative session. Lang says he'd like to resurrect that legislation, but lawmakers may balk at increasing their own campaign funds while cutting the budget for everything from education to health care.

On the following day of Silver's decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its divided decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned a long-standing precedent and lifted restrictions on corporations and unions from spending money on political campaigns on behalf (or against) candidates.

The practical outcome of the ruling in Arizona, says Lang, is that corporations and unions will no longer have to deliver their contributions to political action committees, which are subject to various reporting requirements and other legal restrictions. Instead, they'll be able to freely spend money directly on candidates and ballot measures that they support or oppose, which will "open the floodgates for corporate contributions."

Lang says the new ruling will "have a profound effect in the long run. Basically, a corporation can now go down to the Legislature and say, 'Hey, vote our way on this bill, or we're just going to hammer you.'"

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