Two years ago, the Republican-controlled Legislature sought to get voters to kill the Citizens Clean Elections Act, claiming it is wrong for politicians to use public money for campaigns.
Now, some of those same GOP lawmakers want to belly up to the bar and get handouts of public dollars for everything from sending out communications to constituents to buying tickets for special events.
Legislation awaiting House action would automatically give legislators $4,900 every year from the Clean Elections Fund for those expenses. The measure already cleared its first hurdle this week with a 7-1 approval of the House Education Committee.
The architect of the measure is Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills.
Kavanagh acknowledged that he voted three years ago to constitutionally ban the use of public money in political campaigns.
He rejected arguments by proponents of public campaign funding at that time that the system provides a realistic alternative to candidates having to seek money from — and be beholden to — lobbyists and other special interests. Kavanagh said it instead involves government interference in elections.
That measure never got to voters after being ruled illegal by the Arizona Supreme Court.
Now, Kavanagh is espousing those same arguments about reducing the reliance of elected officials on special interests so he and his colleagues can get guaranteed — and publicly funded — expense accounts.
“Currently, officeholder accounts are being funded by individual contributions, sometimes by lobbyists,” he said. Kavanagh said moving the cost of that is “consistent with the Clean Elections mandate to get politics out.”
“There’s nothing wrong with using government money for legitimate government purposes,” Kavanagh said.
He said that includes communicating with constituents, sending out updates on legislative issues and even buying tickets for local the Rotary Club luncheon. All of those are allowed under current law — assuming lawmakers can raise the money elsewhere.
The Clean Elections Commission, which would have been eviscerated had the Kavanagh-backed constitutional amendment passed, now is willing to cozy up to this plan.
But the panel is getting something for its support.
HB2651 contains a “sweetener” of sorts: It would restore a check-off on state tax forms that allow taxpayers to make donations to the commission and get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.
“They required a certain amount of funding,” Kavanagh said. But he said the commission has agreed to use some of the additional cash it generates for other purposes, including helping counties replacing aging election equipment.
“They also want to do a get-out-the-vote campaign,” he said. And while Kavanagh said he remains convinced the commission should not be funding candidates, both the election equipment and voter turnout campaigns are “legitimate, uncontroversial uses of the money.”
Tom Collins, the commission’s executive director, defended the arrangement.
“We think that this package is consistent with that the Clean Elections Act is about,” he said.
How much the commission might get, however, is unclear.
Collins said the check-off brought in about $6.5 million a year before legislators eliminated it several years ago. That compares with approximately $9.3 million it now receives from a surcharge on all civil, criminal and traffic fines.
Aside from providing $4,900 allocations to lawmakers, HB2651 would also require the commission to provide $49,180 every year to the governor, $25,840 to the secretary of state and attorney general and $12,920 to other statewide officeholders.
The 1998 voter-approved system allows — but does not require — candidates for statewide and legislative office to get public funding for their campaigns if they agree not to take private dollars. The amount of money available to each candidate depends on the office sought.
As originally approved, the law provided extra cash, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, when a privately financed candidate spent more. But that provision was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.