Dollars And Democracy

Prop 200 gives voters a chance to establish publicly financed elections.

By Dave Devine

Is $5 a taxpayer worth it to change our shameful system of campaign financing where 90 percent of the money now comes from lobbyists or business interests? I think most people would say so.

--Dennis Burke,
Arizona Director of Common Cause

Like most attempts to "reform" the political process, this proposal creates more problems than it solves.

--Mike Hellon,
Chair, Arizona Republican Party

IF APPROVED, THE so-called Clean Elections Initiative would make Arizona the third state in the country with a publicly financed campaign program. Through a complex method of fundraising and distribution, Proposition 200 would offer politicians a voluntary alternative to the groveling and pandering they have to do today to raise campaign cash.

Currents Funding for the program would come from a $100 annual fee on registered lobbyists of for-profit groups, a $5 contribution check-off on state income tax returns, tax-credited donations, and a 10 percent surcharge on civil and criminal penalties. The money would be administered by an appointed, five-member, multi-partisan Citizens Clean Election Committee.

To qualify for free campaign funds, political candidates will have to raise large numbers of $5 contributions from within the areas they seek to serve. These numbers range from 200 contributions for legislative candidates to 4,000 for gubernatorial hopefuls.

Once the contribution requirement has been met, candidates are eligible to receive as much as $25,000 for legislative campaigns to $950,000 for the governor's race. Candidate spending would be limited to the public fund ceiling, except in some special cases.

Feelings about this proposal are intense on both sides of the issue. A representative of the Libertarian Party said, "Any restrictions on an individual's right to do anything with their own property, i.e. their money, is unconstitutional."

Tucsonan Mike Hellon believes passage of the proposition would limit public office to the wealthy. In his opinion, the expenditure limitations for statewide offices are too low to make participants competitive.

Common Cause honcho Dennis Burke disagrees. "If a candidate has something to say, the spending limits will be high enough," he says.

Josh Silver, campaign manager for Arizonans for Clean Elections, which is pushing the initiative, says the limits were set by looking at past campaign expenditures. He adds that the voluntary nature of the program makes it constitutional.

Kaia Lenhart of the group says the goal of the proposition is to level the playing field so more people can run for office.

Opponents of the measure believe it's inappropriate to use taxpayer money to finance campaigns for elected office. Tax dollars for existing programs, they say, will be lost because of the funding mechanism. They also argue that a new bureaucracy will be created to administer the program, and that meeting the $5 contribution goals could be very difficult to accomplish.

If the City of Tucson's publicly financed campaign-fund matching program is any example, this final concern is a valid one. Gathering 200 donations, even $5 ones, from people who live within a legislative district could prove very tough. If it is, it might end up discouraging candidates from participating in the Clean Elections program.

Silver sees it differently: "If candidates can't meet that standard, they shouldn't run."

The effort to put this measure on the ballot, called grassroots by its supporters, is actually very well financed. To date, $380,000 has been raised and mostly spent. Lenhart sidestepped the question when asked how much the campaign hoped to spend, but insisted it would certainly be less than $1 million.

Opponents of the measure can also be expected to have big bucks to fight Proposition 200. Those who like the present system of campaign financing, where many politicians are perceived to be bought and paid for by lobbyists, will certainly see it as a wise investment in their future. TW

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