In 2010, Arizona voters could be asked to separate political candidates from public campaign funds. But elected lawmakers at this point have no intention of pulling the plug themselves on the lucrative funding stream that pays for publicly funded campaigns.
On June 15, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to advance SCR1025, a referendum proposed by Tucson Republican Sen. Jonathan Paton that would allow voters to decide whether to prevent the state from operating publicly funded campaigns.
The measure was forwarded by the committee after a 4-3 vote, with all Republicans voting for it.
At times, the debate over the proposal became bitter, as Paton, the committee chairman, paused to speak quietly with Tempe Democrat Meg Burton Cahill, after declaring a series of objections held by Cahill to be “out of line.”
The 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.
The committee hearing focused largely on semantics, the real or perceived effects of publicly funded campaigns and the motivations behind the controversial 1998 ballot initiative that enshrined the system into law.
But lawmakers largely avoided talking about what would become of the funding stream that steered $17 million into the coffers of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission last year.
The commission receives money from a 10-percent surcharge applied to all civil and criminal fines collected in the state. Other, more minor revenue sources include voluntary tax check-offs, tax credits and fines levied by the commission against publicly funded candidates who violate the commission’s rules.
Sen. Chuck Gray, a Mesa Republican, voted in favor of the measure after explaining that 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 his campaign, while his publicly funded opponent was awarded a total of $40,000 from the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
“My government did that to me,” he said. “My government gave more free-speech rights to my opponent.”
Now, Gray is thinking about ways to make use of the commission’s funding stream. The senator said it is likely the commission itself would remain intact and still be required to perform its mandated duties of voter education and hosting debates.
“We could use that funding for education, we could use that funding for a lot of things,” he said.
Gray said he believes the referendum could be amended upon further Senate consideration or perhaps undergo a few changes after it is transferred to the House. An accompanying referendum to redirect the funds destined for the commission also could be introduced, he said.
“I just think that this funding source needs to go to a different place other than politicians,” Gray said, adding that he believed it would be “politically unfeasible” during a budget crisis to strike a solid funding source along with publicly funded campaigns.
Todd Lang, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said he did not agree with the idea of “eviscerating” the commission’s primary responsibility of providing money to ensure candidates can run for office.
“They should let the voters vote up or down on whether they want this alternative campaign finance system,” he said. “Either it should all go, or it should stay.”
While Paton’s referendum to have voters determine the future of publicly funded elections has cleared its first hurdle, legislation aimed at removing the availability of matching funds for publicly funded candidates for the 2010 election cycle stalled with the last-minute cancellation of House Judiciary Committee meeting on June 18.
H2603, a proposal sponsored by Rep. Rich Crandall, a Republican from Mesa, and a handful of GOP and Democrat lawmakers, seeks to eliminate the Citizens Clean Elections Commission’s matching funds system, which is also facing a threat in the courts.
Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat and co-sponsor the bill, said the litigation is needed to provide certainty during the 2010 election cycle because the matching-funds provision is under serious threat by litigation pushed by the Goldwater Institute.
The goal of H2603, Campbell said, is to sufficiently raise the initial disbursements given to publicly funded candidates for primary and general election cycles to prepare for a future without matching funds.
“This bill hopefully will take away the doubts of the next election cycle, and whatever the court decides, the court decides,” Campbell said. “What we’re trying to do right now is have something in place for next year so candidates aren’t waiting until next June for a court decision and figuring out how they’re going to run for office.”
So far, lawmakers have yet to agree on how much to increase initial disbursement amounts for legislative and statewide candidates who plan on running publicly funded campaigns in 2010, although preliminary discussions have produced ranges between 30 percent and 50 percent, he said.
To reach consensus among a supermajority of lawmakers, which would be necessary to amend the voter-approved Clean Elections Act of 1998, Campbell acknowledged that demands for raising limits on private campaign contributions will have to be considered. Exact figures have yet to be determined, he said.
Lang said the bill would only get rid of matching funds for the 2010 cycle, and that the commission would appeal if the funds were found to be unconstitutional.
“The system works much better with matching funds,” he said. “But if the judge is going to rule it unconstitutional then we need to try to do something to make it work for 2010.”
Uncertainty over the future of matching funds, a significant lure for candidates’ use of public campaign funds, is evident. So far, only nine people who have announced their intention to run for statewide or legislative office have filed applications to be certified as publicly funded candidates, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
Last year, 107 candidates were qualified to receive public campaign funding, according to the Citizens Clean Elections Commission 2008 Annual Report.