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Claims against Arizona Clean Elections Commission are misleading

Let’s cut to the chase.  If Free Enterprise Club President Scot Mussi wanted voters to get “another shot” at evaluating Clean Elections, the club would support sending them a straightforward repeal. Instead Mussi backed HCR2004, which, as amended, was a misleading and legally flawed bill that would have left Clean Elections a dead letter and appropriated its fund to the Classroom Site Fund.

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

The bill failed in House Appropriations Committee on February 15. But this idea is nothing new.  Like its predecessors in other sessions, HCR2004 would have misled voters into thinking they are substantially supporting education when they aren’t. And it would have misled them into believing Clean Elections will function, when it won’t. HCR2004 would decimate Clean Elections and end the only dedicated funding for voter education programs and campaign finance enforcement.

The commission receives about $7 million (and falling) annually from a surcharge on all civil and criminal fines and penalties, and nothing from the general fund. That is .019 percent of the $3.6 billion in basic state aid K-12 schools were allocated for FY2017.

Some 300 individuals and groups ultimately signed in opposition to HCR2004: the Arizona School Boards Association, school board members, educators, and parents. Opponents also included county recorders who understand voter education is vital. Four people signed in to support the bill; two are club employees.

Mussi claims his organization “broke the story that over $80,000… provided to participating candidates was funneled directly to the Democratic party.”  When Mussi first made this allegation in a press release, I invited him to file a complaint. He did not.

He also called for the voter-protected Citizens Clean Elections Act to be amended to prevent this. I invited him to participate in the commission’s legislative agenda discussion, which specifically addressed Mussi’s proposal (footnote [4]). My emails went unacknowledged.

The commission’s rules permit participating candidates to make expenditures to political committees, including parties. At the time of Mussi’s release, a complaint had already been filed by Constantin Querard, a political consultant, making similar allegations. In response to that complaint, I took unprecedented steps prior to a vote by the commission initiating an investigation. These included demands to provide sworn evidence for expenditures to the Democratic Party and independent audits of every party transaction for candidates who had been previously selected for auditing.

After reviewing the responses and audits, I determined that the standard governing the commission’s proceedings, “reason to believe a violation may have occurred,” was not met.  The commission unanimously agreed.

I, not the commission, made a public statement warning against relying on “fact free” speculation by others, like Free Enterprise Club (foot note [5]). Mussi’s claim the “commission decided to employ a shoot-the-messenger strategy against the Club” is false – he never filed a complaint and I wrote the note after reviewing the facts, and analyzing the applicable law.  The record is available at http://azcleanelections.gov/CmsItem/File/294.

Several commissioners discussed tightening the rules. Rule change proposals are forthcoming.

Mussi correctly noted that participation in the Clean Elections funding program has declined.  Recall the 2012 Legislature slashed funding for candidates after the Supreme Court declared the funding distribution formula unconstitutional.  Regardless, the program provides voters a greater opportunity to meet candidates, according to Barnard College Professor Michael Miller, and fights corruption and its appearance.

Mussi misleads in alleging commission actions were “never authorized by voters.” The Clean Elections Act, as passed by voters in 1998, provided for campaign finance enforcement regardless of public financing and a robust voter education program. The Arizona Supreme Court said the commission’s enforcement of laws covering traditional candidates and independent expenditures was “paramount” and duties that “do not relate to the public financing of political campaigns.” The Superior Court reaffirmed the authority over traditional candidates when Tom Horne sued in 2014 (footnote [8]).

Mussi apparently concludes SB1516, the 2016 bill that amended election laws, changed the commission’s authority. But the plain language of SB1516 does not address the Clean Elections Act – the same basis for the Superior Court ruling.

The commission follows state law. Mussi’s claim that the commission engaged in “unlawful” rulemaking is meritless. The commission passes rules as the act requires; it makes adjustments consistent with the standard for all rulemakings. It is a transparent process.  Participation is encouraged and stakeholder feedback solicited.  More than 150 people commented on one rule in 2015 alone.

This isn’t the first time Mussi has pushed this proposal.  It fails every time because the Clean Elections System works for voters.

Tom Collins is executive director of the Arizona Clean Elections Commission. The opinion he expressed is his own. 

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