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Vogt looking to raise campaign cash limits, but Clean Elections may be an obstacle

Ted Vogt (File Photo)

Ted Vogt (File Photo)

Arizona’s Clean Elections system may rise from the dead just long enough to slap the people who are dancing on its grave.

Rep. Ted Vogt, a Tucson Republican, plans to introduce a bill that would drastically raise the campaign contribution limits for privately funded candidates. But the voter-approved law that created the Clean Elections system may require a three-fourths vote in the Legislature to change the contribution limits, which could slam the door on a proposal that’s certain to face stiff opposition.

Vogt, no friend of Clean Elections, wants to raise the contribution limit to match federal levels. He said the details aren’t finalized, but his bill will likely raise the contribution limit for statewide offices to $4,800 for the election cycle — the same limit imposed by federal law on congressional and Senate candidates — and $2,400 for legislative candidates.

State law currently allows contributions of $840 for statewide candidates and $410 for legislative candidates.

“I think the $410 limit is very low and infringes on people’s rights to speech,” Vogt said.

Republicans, who have a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature, are largely supportive of raising contribution limits. But Vogt will likely need more than 16 and 31 votes.

The campaign contribution limits are set by statute, but the statute is governed by the Citizens Clean Elections Act. A provision of the act states that traditionally funded candidates cannot accept contributions that are more than 80 percent of the limit set by statute.

For example, in order to raise the limit to $390 for legislative candidates in 2006, the Legisature had to approve a limit of $488.

“The goofy thing about this is technically you’re never interfering with Clean Elections by adjusting the limits,” said Nick Dranias, an attorney with the Goldwater Institute. “All Clean Elections is doing is shaving 20 percent off the top.”

Dranias, who is leading the Goldwater Institute’s lawsuit against the matching funds provision of the Clean Elections system, said that means any change to the contribution limits is governed by Clean Elections. Under the Voter Protection Act, voter-mandates can only be changed with a three-fourths vote in the Legislature, and only in ways that further the intent of the voters.

Dranias said there are arguments that the Citizens Clean Elections Act doesn’t apply to contribution limits for privately funded candidates, but they’ve never been used or tested by the Legislature or the courts.

“The bottom line is that the Clean Elections Act has made a mess out of our system of campaign finance laws because when you view the Clean Elections Act against Prop. 105 (Voter Protection Act) there is no clear answer as to how you go about raising contribution limits for nonparticipating … candidates,” he said.

Rep. Michele Reagan is intimately familiar with the quirky interpretation that puts all contributions under the purview of Clean Elections.

In 2006, Reagan successfully passed a bill to raise contribution limits. But Legislative Council and the House Rules Committee ruled that it required a three-fourths vote under the Voter Protection Act, and needed to somehow further the intent of the Clean Elections Act. In order to reach that benchmark, Reagan packaged the contribution limit increase with a handful of improvements sought by Clean Elections supporters.

Reagan, a Scottsdale Republican, praised Vogt’s proposal. But he’ll need to find a way to further the voters’ intent to level the playing field for publicly funded candidates, and get three-fourths approval for the entire proposal.

“I applaud him because it sounds so simple. Raise the limit. But he’s going to run into a lot of constitutional issues. And unless he throws something in the bill that helps out the participating candidate, it’s not going to pass the litmus test of furthering the will of the voters,” Reagan said.

Vogt said he believes his proposal will be constitutional if it passes with a simple majority. But he said he might be willing to include changes to strengthen the Clean Elections system as part of a deal to increase contribution limits. He said he’s gotten a positive reception from colleagues who are familiar with his proposal, but hasn’t spoken with Reagan about her experiences.

“I’ll look at whatever’s necessary to get these things changed. Again, I don’t think it will necessarily implicate Clean Elections,” Vogt said.  “I don’t think so, but we’ll certainly know more as we move through the legislative process.”

Vogt’s proposal comes during a time of disarray for Arizona’s campaign finance system. The U.S. Supreme Court in March blocked the distribution of matching funds, the lynchpin of the Clean Elections system. The court is widely expected to rule that matching funds are unconstitutional when it hears the case in 2011.

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