Former Senate President Russell Pearce is facing a wealthy opponent in this year’s elections, but his campaign could receive a six-figure windfall from the state treasury if his Republican allies in the Legislature have their way.
A senior House Republican is circulating a letter calling for the state to reimburse Pearce more than $250,000 for his recall election last year.
Pearce is running again for the Senate this year in the new Legislative District 25. His opponent in the Republican primary is Bob Worsley, the founder of SkyMall.
House Speaker Pro Tem Steve Montenegro said he began circulating the letter after he was approached by several Republicans concerned about a constitutional provision requiring recalled elected officials to be reimbursed.
“There’s a lot of legislators that have raised the issue,” the Litchfield Park Republican said. “Some members have spoken out, and it’s our constitutional duty.”
The Arizona Constitution requires the Legislature to enact laws to govern recalls, “including provision for payment by the public treasury of the reasonable special election campaign expenses of such officer.”
Montenegro said that means lawmakers have a constitutional responsibility to ensure Pearce has his expenses reimbursed.
“If we don’t do it, that sets a precedent,” he said.
Montenegro declined to say how many lawmakers had signed the letter, but said he hoped the money would be included in the budget that legislators are expected to vote on next week.
One supporter of the idea is Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, one of Pearce’s political allies.
“I continue to defend that point of view. I’ve raised it often, and again, it’s constitutionally owed,” he said in an interview earlier this month.
Others aren’t sure Pearce deserves to be reimbursed, since none of the money he spent in the recall election was actually his.
“If it came out of Russell’s personal pocket – you know, he and his wife took out a second mortgage (or) something like that – then the conversation is open. But a refund of campaign contributions from groups across the country, from lobbyists and things like that? Absolutely not,” said Sen. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican.
Crandall often butted heads with Pearce when the two served together in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Rather than challenge Pearce this year, Crandall announced that he will move to a neighboring district.
Until 1973, state law included provisions to reimburse recalled officials: maximums of $500 for statewide officers, $200 for legislators and $150 for municipal officers. However, that law was repealed as part of a sweeping overhaul of the state’s initiative, referendum and recall statutes.
In the historic 2011 recall election, Pearce spent $260,302 attempting to retain the Senate seat he had been elected to a year earlier. None of the money was his: Of the $261,000 he raised, more than $180,000 came from individual contributors and another $81,000 came from political action committees.
He was defeated by Republican Jerry Lewis, who spent $84,979. The election was the first time in state history a legislator was successfully recalled.
Although the letter calls for Pearce to receive reimbursement for all of the money he spent last year, it is unclear whether that would be necessary. The only other time the issue has come up is in 1988, when Gov. Evan Mecham was facing recall.
When Mecham requested an advance payment of $1.5 million to fund his campaign, Attorney General Bob Corbin issued an opinion that said the Legislature must enact a provision to make the payment, as one does not exist in statute – and that the amount reimbursed could be whatever lawmakers choose.
“The framers of the Constitution…left the matter of details such as the method, timing and calculation of payment to the discretion of the Legislature,” Corbin wrote.