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Voters might have last word in Clean Elections

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted June 15 to advance a measure that would allow voters to decide the fate of Arizona’s system of publicly funded campaigns known as Clean Elections.

SCR1025 would amend the state Constitution to ban the public funding of campaigns in Arizona. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of SCR1025 forwards the proposal for consideration by the entire Senate. If approved by the Legislature, it would be added to the 2010 ballot.

Republican committee members sided in favor of the proposal initiated by Tucson Sen. Jonathan Paton, outnumbering the committee’s Democrats by a 4-3 margin.

Lawmakers became agitated during the debate. Paton, the committee chairman, paused to speak quietly with Sen. Meg Burton Cahill, a Tempe Democrat, after declaring a series of objections held by Cahill to be “out of line.”

The quick and quiet conversation broke soon after, with Cahill blurting out, “It’s your committee.”

Cahill objected to describing campaign money distributed by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission to participating candidates as “public funds,” given the fact the commission does not rely on money appropriated from the state’s general fund.

Arizona’s system of publicly funded campaigns is funded through surcharges on criminal and civil fines, and to a lesser extent, voluntary tax write-offs.

But the debate over the proposal’s language was soon eclipsed by unease among the committee’s Republicans, who attacked the use of the phrase “Clean Elections” as a deceptive and overly cheerful description of a campaign system that, in Paton’s words, pays for candidates’ “junk mail and yard signs.”

The committee’s chairman also derailed an attempt by Cahill to direct the discussion to include the will of voters. At one point, Cahill pressed Citizens Clean Elections Commission Executive Director Todd Lang to address the 1991 bribery scandal known as AzScam, which some say played a part in the 1998 approval of the Clean Elections Act.

Paton said he believed the motivation behind introducing publicly funded campaigns in was political, however, and not a reaction to AzScam, the scandal that caught sitting lawmakers taking bribes from an undercover law enforcement operative posing as a lobbyist.

The Tucson Republican said he recalled supporters of publicly funded campaigns who referred to the Clean Elections Act as the “great hope by the left to finally be able to beat well-funded Republicans at the Legislature.”

“And how’s that working out for them?” Paton quipped.

Other committee Republicans, like Sen. Chuck Gray of Mesa, protested that Arizona’s system of publicly funded elections introduces a government hand into the election process that should be limited solely to citizens.

Gray said Clean Elections allowed his publicly funded opponent to outspend him during his 2002 campaign for the House of Representatives. He said he raised $24,000 during that campaign, while his publicly funded opponent was ultimately awarded a total of $40,000.

“My government did that to me,” he said. “My government gave more free-speech rights to my opponent.”

Cahill, while explaining her vote against the proposed referendum, said she believed Arizona’s system of publicly funded campaigns has increased the diversity of candidates and allowed contenders to run viable campaigns without the help of powerful lobbyists.

“I believe there are people here who have a voice who normally wouldn’t have a voice,” said Cahill, later adding “I’m very sorry to even have to vote on this bill.”

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