The measure, HB2593, would dramatically increase the amount individuals and political action committees can contribute to candidates to $2,000 from the current $440. Super PACs would be allowed to contribute as much as $4,000.
Technically, the bill would change the law to allow contributions of $2,500 for PACs and individuals and $5,000 for Super PACs. However, a provision elsewhere in Arizona law sets the actual limits at 80 percent of the dollar amounts laid out in statute.
Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said his legislation is about empowering candidates to raise enough money to allow their campaign messages to compete with the rise in independent expenditures — uncoordinated campaign spending that can sway voters who may never hear directly from a candidate.
The legislation, which was approved by the House on Feb. 28 on a 32-23 vote and is now being taken up by the Senate, would also eliminate aggregate contribution limits now applied to individual donors and PACs.
“As of late, many candidates have been relegated to mere spectators in their campaigns,” Mesnard testified last month in the House Judiciary Committee. “What good is the $30,000 or $40,000 I raise $300 and $400 at a time — if they give me that much — when one side is out there raising $400,000? … I might as well sit back and watch and hope I come out on top.”
Arizona’s low caps on contributions are also a hindrance to individuals and PACs that want to contribute directly to a candidate but are discouraged by “unconstitutionally low contribution limits,” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery told the House panel Feb. 21.
Arizona has the sixth-lowest contribution limits in the country, he said.
“We’re going to see more money spent through the independent expenditure process if we do not allow individual citizens to participate more fully and exercise their rights to free speech,” Montgomery said.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett agrees that Arizona’s contribution limits are far too low, but he echoed a concern raised by CCEC Executive Director Todd Lang — lawmakers would have to consider raising Clean Elections funding to keep publicly funded candidates within striking distance of their opponents, Bennett said.
“Traditional candidates would have a huge advantage under this system,” Lang told the Judiciary Committee. “And you have a huge Prop. 105 problem. It completely undermines the purpose of the (Clean Elections) act and it undermines the opportunity for people to participate in the system.”
Critics argue that, when voters approved the Voter Protection Act in 1998, known in legislative parlance as “Prop. 105,” they made it clear that they wanted to reduce private campaign contributions.
Bennett warned that lawmakers shouldn’t use this bill as an attack on Clean Elections.
“If it’s the intent or effect of this, to destroy Clean Elections, I think you’re ultimately going to fail,” Bennett said. “The people of Arizona put Clean Elections in place, and only the people of Arizona should be able to get rid of it.”
Roughly 33 percent of candidates used Clean Elections funding in the last election cycle, Lang said. And campaign finance records show that, since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that struck down matching funds — which provided Clean Elections candidates running with public funds a dollar-for-dollar match of their privately funded opponents — the number of candidates running on public funding has dramatically declined.
Sixty-three out of 175 legislative candidates ran with Clean Elections funding in the 2012 primary election, and only
17 of those candidates went on to win their race in the general election.
Participation in 2012 was nearly half of what it was in 2008, the last cycle before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, when 120 of 189 legislative candidates ran Clean Elections. Forty-eight of the candidates went on to take office.
“We understand the money isn’t going to be equal. We just want to make it competitive,” Lang said.
Sam Wercinski of the Arizona Advocacy Network reminded lawmakers of the public corruption that spurred voters to pass the Clean Elections Act in 1999.
“It’s not so much just about the money, but also the potential corrupting influence that large sums of money can have, either real or perceived by the political system,” Wercinksi said.
But independent expenditures by PACs and other organizations are now the corrupting influence in elections, drowning out the voices of candidates themselves, said Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert. For example, Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, was outspent “probably 10-to-1” by independent expenditures in 2012, Farnsworth said.
Union-funded committees spent more than $300,000 on television ads and mailers attacking McComish and another $34,000 supporting his Democratic opponent. McComish spent
$87,000 defending himself, and was aided by $74,000 in spending on his behalf by outside groups. Those groups spent another $137,000 attacking the Democrat.
Few candidates would actually raise more money if the contribution limits are raised, Mesnard said. However, the point is to provide the opportunity for privately funded candidates to raise enough money to have their own voices heard, he said.