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Lobbyist, lawmaker to resume Clean Elections clash

The Citizens Clean Elections Commission has renewed a $6,500-per-month contract with lobbyist Mike Williams, setting up another battle over the fate of the public campaign-funding system.

Todd Lang, director of the Clean Elections Commission, said hiring a lobbyist was necessary to protect a system he credits with increasing political participation of the public and encouraging people to run for office.

“Ultimately, it would be great if we didn’t need a lobbyist and no one was trying to repeal us, or if we all agreed on everything, but that’s not the situation,” he said after retaining Williams in October.

However, Tucson Sen. Jonathan Paton said Williams’ retention is ironic considering the goal of publicly funded campaigns is to minimize the influence of special interests.

Now, the lobbyist, who for several years has represented the commission’s interests at the Legislature, and the lawmaker, will resume a curious relationship that began last session and involves equal parts cooperation and outright opposition.

On one side is Paton, who said he will make it a priority during the upcoming legislative session to eliminate publicly financed campaigns.

He said the system is unconstitutional because it burdens the freedom of speech rights of traditionally funded candidates and those who contribute to their campaigns. Paton said it’s wrong for the state to provide money to candidates for political office, and he argues the system has failed to achieve its goal of making political campaigns less contentious.

Paton said he will redouble his effort to give voters a chance in November 2010 to undo 11-year-old Clean Elections system. He said lawmakers are poised to support his referendum, and that voters are tired of the system.

“I’m going to spend every waking moment trying to get this on the ballot,” he said. “If this thing gets on the ballot, Clean Elections is over.”

On the other side is Williams, a veteran lobbyist who said the Clean Elections Commission is devoted to achieving “decent reform” before the 2010 elections and will oppose any ballot referendum that would ban publicly funded campaigns in Arizona.

Williams’ allies include lawmakers who have used Clean Elections to defeat incumbents, although others who have run ‘clean’ don’t necessarily support the system. He said he also will seek support from rural lawmakers who lack the fundraising prowess of their urban counterparts.

Last session, competing measures to reform or banish Arizona’s public campaign financing shriveled; Paton shelved a plan to ask voters to put an end to Clean Elections and instead worked with Williams and Clean Elections Commission Executive Director Todd Lang to craft a measure that would change the system by increasing the initial disbursements to publicly funded candidates while eliminating matching funds and increasing contribution limits for privately funded candidates.

Despite Paton’s objections to Clean Elections, he assisted the Williams-led effort to help the commission and political candidates find stability for the 2010 election cycle. Paton said he was willing to settle for changing the system, while realizing he still had one more session to get the outright ban on the 2010 ballot.

The cooperative effort was born after federal Judge Roslyn Silver signaled that she may decide it’s unconstitutional for the state to provide money to a publicly funded candidate in order to match the money raised or spent by a privately funded candidate.

But the unlikely alliance between the lawmaker and the lobbyist did not produce the intended result.

After months of wrangling, several amendments and an easy stroll through the House, the reform measure (S1087) that had been worked out between Paton and Williams fell apart in the final moments of the session when senators began bickering about amendments and principles.

Paton had provided a last-minute boost to the commission’s effort by amending a Senate bill to conform with House legislation in hopes of securing a 2010 election fix in the waning hours of the 2009 regular session.

But just prior to the vote on the Senate floor on July 1, Sen. Pamela Gorman, a Republican from Anthem, attempted to add 10 amendments to the bill. After they were voted down, Gorman pointed out that some lawmakers had voted against provisions that they agreed with on principle.

Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, a Democrat from Phoenix, asked that Gorman be reprimanded for impugning fellow lawmakers. Speaker Pro Tem Barbara Leff, a Republican from Paradise Valley, agreed to issue the reprimand.

Leff’s action stoked the ire of Sen. Jack Harper, a Republican from Surprise. Harper, defended Gorman, saying she did not criticize any individual lawmaker and therefore didn’t break Senate rules.

Harper then voted no in defiance and was joined by Sen. Sylvia Allen.

Other lawmakers followed their lead, and the bill, which needed a three-fourths majority to pass, fell dead on a 19-8 vote moments before sine die.

The failure of S1087 came in stark contrast to an overwhelming 58-1 House vote approving an identical measure.

Williams described the measure as the result of extensive negotiations between lawmakers, political parties and the commission.

“He (Lang) was trying to keep the process fair for both the challenger, the incumbent and for the clean and traditional candidate,” Williams said.

E-mails between Lang and Williams, which were obtained through a public records request, show the commission wrestled at times to maintain control of the legislation as lawmakers amended it.

In the e-mails, Lang criticized new language added to the measure that tripled limits for contributions by “super PACs” – political action committees with more than 500 members – and noted the changes “weren’t part of the discussion.” A provision of the legislation would have raised the limit of contributions to legislative candidates to $4,160 from $1,664.

Lang also questioned other proposals to substantially raise limits on contributions by political parties to privately funded candidates, as well as a provision to boost public funding for gubernatorial candidates by two-and-a-half times the existing levels. In the final draft legislation, the combined primary and general election public funding would have increased to $3.5 million from $1.8 million.

Also, in late June, Lang informed Williams: “I’m taking a lot of heat from the advocates.”

Clean Elections Commissioner Louis Hoffman said the calls to raise limits on contributions by super PACs were the “most problematic” of the proposals. Hoffman is a Phoenix patent attorney who drafted the language of the 1998 Clean Elections Act approved by voters.

Both Hoffman and Williams said laws that protect voter-approved initiatives made it nearly impossible to include language in the measure that would benefit candidates who run with Clean Elections money or those who run traditionally.

The 1998 Voter Protection Act, or Proposition 105, mandated that changes to citizen-passed laws be approved by at least a three-fourths supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature. Changes to laws passed by initiative and referendum also must further the purpose of the act in question.

“Because of the requirements, we needed something that everyone could swallow,” Hoffman said.

Changes that were made to the measure during legislative negotiations were not acceptable to everyone, but Hoffman said they were necessary to create a solution that would allow lawmakers and candidates to plan their 2010 campaigns while awaiting the outcome of the federal lawsuit.

Commission deal-making with lawmakers also included proposed increases in the number of $5 contributions candidates need to qualify for public funding. Lawmakers were concerned about raising initial payments to Clean Elections candidates without higher qualification hurdles, while the commission sought to maintain interest and accessibility to public funding, Williams said.

Proposals would have increased the minimum number of $5 contributions to as high as 400 from the current 200. Ultimately, the bill would have required legislative candidates to gather at least 315 contributions.

Williams said the qualification requirements would have made it more difficult for candidates to receive Clean Elections money. But he said the initial disbursements, which were intended to offset the potential loss of matching funds, were necessary to maintain candidate interest in Clean Elections.

“It had to be fair on both sides,” Williams said. “If it were to be made more difficult to qualify, it had to be made worth the while to run clean.”

Lang’s e-mails to Williams signaled the commission was concerned about the impacts of the amendments added by lawmakers. Lang suggested adding language to state that the amendments would expire if the commission successfully defended the lawsuit challenging matching funds.

Lang also opposed separate legislation introduced by Rep. Chad Campbell, a Democrat from Phoenix, which would have authorized a “constituent communications” account. Six lawmakers, including Democrat Reps. Campbell, Kyrsten Sinema, Ed Ableser, David Lujan, and Republican Reps. Rich Crandall, Sam Crump and Michele Reagan originally called for a $20,000 account limit for lawmakers.

Lang’s “wish list” sent to Williams in June called for the death of the idea, or at least limiting the account to $5,000. The bill did not pass.

Upon the death of Paton’s ballot referral and the reform legislation, though, Williams and Paton pledged to renew their competing efforts.

Williams said the current economic climate could become a factor when lawmakers reconsider what to do with the Clean Elections system. He said political organizations and committees pressed for cash may decide to reduce their contributions to candidates during the 2010 election cycle, which might convince lawmakers that Clean Elections does, indeed, serve a purpose.

Paton, though, said he believes lawmakers, many of whom are hesitant to run with public campaign money as a result of the lawsuit, will help pass the ballot referral to ban public financing. He said Clean Elections would lose its attractiveness with the expected loss of available matching funds.

Additionally, the lawmaker and the lobbyist disagree on who holds the most sway with lawmakers.

“You can have as many lobbyists as you want – the best that money can buy – and at the end of the day I believe the best lobbyist you can have is a lawmaker who cares deeply about an issue,” said Paton.

Williams said voters are more influential.

“Ten constituents writing their legislator a letter has more influence than anything that goes on at the Legislature,” said Williams.

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