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Committee OKs bill that would limit contributions to recall efforts

Russell Pearce (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Supporters of former Senate President Russell Pearce weren’t able to stop his foes from putting him on a recall ballot in 2011.

But stopping the next recall effort may be a lot easier.

The Senate Elections Committee on Tuesday passed Senate Bill 1262, which overhauls Arizona’s century-old recall election laws. But one provision may be an exceptional hindrance to future recall efforts.

SB 1262 imposes the same campaign finance limits that apply to candidates on committees that form to circulate petitions and collect signatures for recall efforts. Currently, there are no limits on the amount of money those committees can accept from individuals.

Sen. Michele Reagan, the bill’s sponsor, said SB 1262 isn’t a pro-Pearce or anti-Pearce bill. The Scottsdale Republican said it was a simply a matter of fixing problems that weren’t apparent until the historic recall campaign against him.

But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said the Pearce recall would’ve failed if Reagan’s proposal had been law in 2011.

“The Russell Pearce recall would not have happened,” Gallardo said in committee. “They would not have been successful.”

Gallardo noted that unlike citizen initiatives or referenda, recall organizers only have 120 days to gather the signatures they need. That effort requires paid circulators, which in turn requires money.

Much of the money raised by Citizens for a Better Arizona, the anti-Pearce group that collected the signatures for the recall election, was from contributions that fell within the $424 limit to legislative candidates. But CBA also brought in heftier amounts.

A Scottsdale man contributed $5,500. An attorney gave $1,000. A Tempe woman provided $2,700 in in-kind contributions.

While campaign finance records show that CBA would have raised a significant amount of money, even with contribution limits, another more recent recall effort might be stopped in its tracks by the proposed law.

Respect Arizona, the committee heading up an attempted recall of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, needs about 335,000 valid signatures to put Arpaio on a recall ballot, meaning it likely needs to collect more than a half million. Observers speculate that it will take $1 million or more to get the needed signatures.

If passed, SB 1262 would not affect the Arpaio recall effort. But Gallardo worried that it would make it nearly impossible for voters to recall elected officials in the future.

“Would it prevent the Russell Pearce recall? You bet. Would it prevent the Joe Arpaio recall? You bet. Would it protect elected officials? You bet,” Gallardo said. “You’re stopping them from ever starting.”

Reagan said the current lack of limits could give an unfair advantage to recall campaigns that can raise unlimited amounts of money, while their targets are subject to low contribution limits.

“That’s not to say that independent expenditures or different groups, they can still participate or help on one side or the other. But the actual candidates, so to speak, which would be the person being recalled and the group doing the recall, need to be treated equally,” Reagan said.

However, that appears to be an apples-to-oranges comparison. Committees opposing the recall efforts can also raise unlimited amounts of money in efforts to dissuade voters from signing recall petitions or challenging signatures in court.

The bill makes other changes to Arizona’s recall statutes as well. It would designate the recall period as a distinct and separate campaign cycle, which would allow targeted candidates to raise maximum contributions for both their regular and recall campaign committees.

Reagan said the lack of clarity in the law made it difficult for recall targets to raise money, and prohibited them from raising money from people who had already maxed out to their regular campaign committees. Even before organizers collect enough signatures to put a candidate on a recall ballot, she said, that candidate needs to start raising money for the fight.

“If someone pulls papers on me to recall me, that’s certainly their right,” she said. “But that campaign starts for me the minute that person pulls those papers.”

Reagan said the Pearce recall exposed the need for reforms to laws that date back to Arizona’s statehood in 1912.

“This wasn’t about Russell. This was because of the fact that we had a recall election,” Reagan said. “You had no legal framework to follow.”

Reagan also said she began working on the bill long before Arpaio opponents began their recall effort against him.

Gallardo was the only committee member to vote against the bill. Democratic Sens. Katie Hobbs and Robert Meza joined their Republican colleagues in supporting it.

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