Arizona Republicans are pushing legislation that would wildly increase campaign contribution limits for privately financed campaigns and severely gut the state’s public campaign financing option, allowing an unprecedented surge of private dollars into local elections.
A House committee advanced a bill in a 5-3 vote Thursday that would more than quadruple campaign contribution limits for some candidates. The committee also moved forward in a 5-3 vote a measure that would ask voters to use public campaign finance dollars to instead fund public education.
The efforts represent the GOP’s latest attempt to limit public dollars in elections. Critics complain Arizona dollars should not be used to propel candidates.
The campaign contribution bill only impacts candidates running with private financing. The bill would allow statewide, legislative or other candidates to accept $2,500 from individual donors and $5,000 from some political committees. The bill would allow candidates to collect the maximum contribution twice — during the primary and the general election.
Republicans said current limits are too low, especially given the growing influence of outside political advertisements in national and state campaigns.
“The candidate is just dwarfed in the message,” Committee Chairman Eddie Farnsworth said in support of the increase. “And that, I think, is the intent. This is not about going after Clean Elections, at least in my mind.”
Voters created Arizona’s Citizens Clean Elections Commission in 1998. It uses surcharges on criminal fines and civil penalties to fund candidates for state office. Participants qualify for public funding by gathering $5 contributions from eligible voters and agreeing to comply with spending and contribution limits.
Under the most recent public funding limits, candidates for governor will be awarded $754,000 for the primary and $1.13 million for the general election. Candidates for Legislature get $15,000 for their primary races and $23,000 for the general election.
Arizona currently caps individual contributions at $912 per statewide candidate and $440 per legislative candidate through the primary and general elections.
All campaign contribution limits are automatically reduced by 20 percent under Clean Election laws.
“This is going to put a tremendous amount of money into these campaigns,” said Democratic Rep. Martin Quezada of the proposed overhaul. “This is directly in contradiction with what the people wanted when they voted for Clean Elections.”
Clean Elections opponents said that money would be better spent on public schools.
“We should let voters decide if Clean Elections has lived up to its promises,” said Republican Rep. Paul Boyer, who is sponsoring the proposed referendum to use public campaign dollars on education.
Republican lawmakers in California and Florida are also working to increase campaign contribution limits in those states.
Todd Lang, director of Arizona’s Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said more than half of the members of the Legislature have used public campaign dollars at least once during their political careers.
“Ultimately, elections should be about whose ideas resonate most with the voter,” not who has the most money, he said.
Barbara Klein, president of the League of Women Voters of Arizona, said voters generally favor public financing.
“One thing citizens are overwhelmingly agreeing upon is that big money influences politics too much,” she said in a telephone interview.
The Judiciary Committee did block one proposed election change Thursday. Farnsworth, the committee chairman, opted to hold a bill that would require notarized signatures for early voters.
Republican Rep. Carl Seel, the bill’s sponsor, said Arizonans are concerned about election fraud that could be prevented with tougher voter verification requirements. He said fraud is most likely to occur with mail ballots.
Democratic Rep. Lupe Contreras accused Seel of trying to suppress voter turnout among Hispanics.
“When you say lawful voters, are you trying to say, with the higher number of Latino votes out there, is that what you are saying, that it is not a lawful vote?” Contreras said.