Arizona is reaching the 20-year anniversary of the passage of the Clean Elections Act, and with each passing day, it becomes apparent that the program has entered a death spiral. The problem, it appears, is that politicians don’t want their money anymore.
The decline has been precipitous: The number of candidates running on government funds from Clean Elections went from 124 in 2010, to only 41 using the program in 2016. It is expected that the decline will continue through the 2018 cycle, as well.
There are numerous reasons for the lack of interest in the program, but the more troubling concern is how Clean Elections has responded to their declining influence. Like other organizations facing an existential crisis, Clean Elections appears to be trying to reinvent itself by creating a new mission that was never authorized by voters.
The clearest example of this has been its ongoing efforts to rewrite state law to empower Clean Elections to investigate and enforce campaign finance disclosure statutes. For over two years, they have attempted to promulgate a series of rules granting themselves the authority to audit and investigate any non-profit organization that exercises its First Amendment right to engage in elections.
All agency rules must be based on existing law, so Clean Elections meticulously poured over state statute to seize on any vague language it could find to justify its illegal power grab. It eventually settled on exploiting the definition used for “political committee” to defend its poorly conceived rule.
To clarify the matter for Clean Elections, the Legislature amended the law to make it crystal clear that the Secretary of State is the office with the authority to oversee elections, and that the rule the commission had promulgated was in direct conflict with state statute and the definition of political committee.
How did Clean Elections respond? They adopted the rule anyway and dropped any pretense that it is supported by state statute. They are so desperate to create a new mission that they are not even pretending to follow state law.
They further demonstrated how their shifting mission is affecting their day to day operations when they refused to take disciplinary action to stop candidates from shuttling funds to political parties. Over the summer, the Free Enterprise Club broke the story that over $80,000 in taxpayer funds provided to participating Clean Candidates was funneled directly to the Arizona Democratic Party, a gross abuse of the program.
Rather than taking disciplinary action to protect the integrity of Clean Elections, the commission exonerated all of the candidates caught giving funds to the Democratic Party. Even more bizarre, while announcing its decision to forego disciplinary action, the commission decided to employ a shoot-the-messenger strategy against the Club.
For shining a light on this abuse, the commission issued a letter complaining that the Club is the one to blame for “politicizing the enforcement actions of their agency.” Given that its entire office is political in nature, we are not sure how that is even possible.
When voters approved the Clean Elections Act by a razor thin margin of 50.1 percent, unlawful rulemaking and a failed mission is not what they envisioned for the program. The people deserve another shot to decide if the money being used to fund Clean Elections is better spent elsewhere.
Scot Mussi is president of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.