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Effort to gut Clean Elections one step closer to the ballot

The Senate on Feb. 28 advanced a ballot measure that aims to dismantle the public financing of candidates in elections.

The proposal split the Senate along party lines, 21-9. Democrats balked at the referral while Republicans backed it.

Before voters can decide the fate of the public campaign financing system, the measure still needs the approval of the House of Representatives.

The debate on the Senate floor a day before foreshadowed the impending public relations war over the fate of financing candidates with public funds.

During the debate, proponents beat back efforts by Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Democrat from Phoenix, to change the title of the ballot referral to “No Clean Elections Funding for Candidate Campaigns Act.”

The constitutional amendment is officially known as the No Taxpayer Subsidies for Political Campaigns Act.

Gallardo said his amendment provides a more accurate description of what Republicans are seeking to accomplish — to get rid of Arizona’s Clean Elections system, which voters approved in 1998.

“If you want to call it something else, that’s fine. (Call it) the ‘Incumbents Protection Act.’ I don’t care. But the voters need to know exactly what we’re doing,” Gallardo said.

The remark prompted this reply from Sen. John McComish, the Republican author of the ballot proposal: “I believe it would be unwise to compound the original error a number of years ago when we referred to this as ‘Clean Elections’ in the first place.”

The measure, if sent to the ballot and approved by voters, would ban the state or any of its political subdivisions from spending money to fund candidates’ campaigns.

The proposed constitutional amendment additionally prohibits any tax credit or deduction to do the same.

Finally, it precludes governments from assessing taxes, fees or surcharges if they’re used to provide money to candidates.

Arizona’s Clean Elections system, which was approved by voters in 1998, is funded through surcharges on certain civil penalties and criminal fines, and a tax credit for contributions to the program.

The fight over the measure’s title is important.

It could spell the difference between success and failure at the ballot box.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the referral by a vote of 6-2 earlier this month.

Lawmakers on the panel split along party lines. Republicans backed the measure while Democrats opposed it.

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