Limited financial disclosure in Pearce recall may spur law changes
Published: August 22, 2011 at 7:53 am
The recall election targeting Senate President Russell Pearce is among the highest-profile legislative races in the state’s modern history.
But the public won’t have a clue how much cash is being raised or spent — or who’s doing the raising and spending to influence the race’s outcome — until a few days before the election itself.
And for some, that defeats the overarching goal of campaign finance reporting laws, which is to ensure transparency and public disclosure.
“It’s not known now and won’t be until right before the election,” said Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, referring to who is contributing and spending in the recall election that is set for Nov. 8. “That’s not transparency.”
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, the campaign finance reports in the special election aren’t due until Oct. 27.
At the outset, this means the public won’t have as much time to review those details as they have in regular elections. For some, the finance reports would come too late because early voting begins Oct. 13.
Already, preliminary discussions are ongoing in the Secretary of State’s Office to address this reporting gap through legislation next year.
“Suffice it to say (we want) greater frequency,” said Deputy Secretary of State Jim Drake.
Rep. J.D. Mesnard, a Chandler Republican, is in talks with the office about legislation on the broader subject of financial disclosure.
Mesnard said he’d like to address the reporting gap, as well.
“I agree that it’s somewhat sparse in terms of when we’re supposed to report, and so we will be looking at fixing that issue,” Mesnard said.
The situation is brought about by a historical anomaly — this is the first time that a sitting legislator faces a recall and the election is happening in an off-year. It’s compounded by current laws that mandate special elections and recalls follow the reporting cycle laid out in election years.
In a typical election year, campaign committees are required to submit pre- and post-election reports both for the primary and general elections. There is no primary for a recall election.
Not everybody shares the need for more reporting requirements, and any legislation to increase the frequency of the reports will likely invite debates about financial disclosure in general.
Nick Dranias, a lawyer with the Goldwater Institute, said people sometimes face political retaliation for financially aiding or opposing a candidate or a cause, and a disclosure law should be coupled with an “escape valve for folks to seek anonymity.”
Without this “escape valve,” disclosure regulations burden people’s First Amendment Rights because they force them to calculate the risk of supporting ideas or things that may be unpopular, he said.
“To what extent do they want to spend money supporting something that may or may not be popular, knowing that everyone can access that knowledge and can potentially retaliate against them or otherwise make their life more difficult for exercising their First Amendment rights? I think that that kind of choice burdens the right to exercise free speech,” Dranias said.
But Drake said there are two hallmarks of recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court on campaign finances: The first is that corporations have First Amendment rights and the second is that there is a “strong governmental interest” in disclosure.
Bob Stern, president of the California-based Center for Governmental Studies, offered a similar view.
“So far the court has upheld every disclosure law, saying that it’s important for the public to know before the election who is trying to influence the election,” he said.
Disclosure and reporting requirements are important because voters want to know who is trying to influence them as well as the candidates, Stern said, adding that the vast majority of campaign money usually comes from folks who are pushing an agenda.