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Bill would require return of equipment bought with Clean Elections money

A Democratic lawmaker wants to require publicly funded candidates to give computers, printers, cameras and other fixed assets purchased with Clean Elections money to the state or buy them at a reduced price.

Current rules allow candidates to use their allotment from the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission to purchase fixed assets worth up to $800 apiece. After elections, candidates are allowed to keep them.

“No one should use the system and benefit from purchasing things for themselves without having to give it back,” said Rep. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe.

Since the items were bought with public money, Ableser said, they technically belong to the state.

“With a budget deficit we are looking everywhere to get money back into the state, and I think this is one way to do that,” he said.

Cronkite News Service reported in December that some of the 107 legislative candidates who opted for Clean Elections funding purchased laptops and other fixed assets, paid relatives to do campaign work and provided entertainment such as a mariachi band and a “post-debate discussion” with campaign staffers at T.G.I. Friday’s.

Ableser’s bill, HB 2262, is virtually the same as a rule change under consideration by the Clean Elections Commission.

Both would require candidates to turn over fixed assets worth $200 or more within 30 days after the primary election or after the general election if they win in the primary.

If they wish to keep those assets, candidates would be able to buy them for 50 percent of the original purchase price.

Ableser’s bill was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee but has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

Colleen McGee, the commission’s deputy director, said that there is a perception that because candidates are using public funding that they shouldn’t keep some of the more expensive assets that they buy.

“You are using public funds and so you are held to a higher standard,” she said.

The commission’s proposed change is open for public comment until Feb. 7, and on Feb. 17 members are scheduled to discuss and potentially vote on the change.

Both the bill and the rule change would also prohibit the purchase of an extended warranty that extends beyond the campaign.

McGee said that the money recovered from the fixed assets would be returned to the pool of public funding.

Clean Elections money comes from a surcharge on civil penalties and criminal fines, voluntary $5 contributions on tax forms, tax-credit donations, $5 qualifying contributions from candidates and civil penalties paid by candidates.

Ableser said that while he is happy that the commission is working to change the rules he believes that it’s important to codify the changes in law.

“When you put something into statute, it is there for a long time,” he said. “I think we need the legislative precedent to support the rule.”

Nick Dranias, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute, which is challenging a key provision of Clean Elections before the U.S. Supreme Court, compared the bill and rule change to a finger in a leaking dike. The changes would set a precedent of giving government too much control over how candidates can campaign, he said.

“For the Clean Elections Commission to get a handle on the way people spend money, they are going to have to make decisions on what is and isn’t a legitimate expense,” he said.

Clean Elections money may not be used for:

• Legal defense in any campaign law enforcement proceeding
• Meals exceeding $11 for breakfast, $16 for lunch, and $27 for dinner
• Household food items
• Expensive, non-promotional clothing
• Tuition payments, unless used for training staff
• Mortgage, loan, rent, lease or utility payments
• Tickets to entertainment events that are unrelated to campaign activity
• Recreational club dues unrelated to a specific fundraising event
• Gifts or donations
Source: Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission

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