Bennett backs campaign reporting requirements, stiff penalties

Jim Small//February 25, 2010

Bennett backs campaign reporting requirements, stiff penalties

Jim Small//February 25, 2010

Arizona’s elections chief says the state needs to overhaul a portion of its campaign finance laws to maintain an informed electorate after the nation’s top court gave corporations the ability to pay for political advertisements.

“I think part of being an informed voter is knowing as much about the candidates as possible, and any other voices that start to weigh in,” said Secretary of State Ken Bennett.

Bennett is pushing for a change to the state’s campaign finance laws that would require corporations and labor unions to report expenditures above certain amounts. For statewide races, that level would be $5,000; in legislative races, expenditures above $2,500 would need to be reported; and expenses above $1,000 in city, county and town elections would trigger a report.

The reports would have to be filed within 24 hours after ads, commercials or other marketing materials hit the streets. Filing a false report would trigger felony charges, punishable by up to two years in jail.

Bennett said Arizona law needs to be changed to conform with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Citizens United v. F.E.C., in which the court ruled that corporations and labor unions are able to directly spend money advocating for or against candidates. Right now, state law doesn’t allow that type of direct spending.

But Nick Dranias, a constitutional attorney for the Goldwater Institute, said Bennett’s real goal is to allow politicians to see who spends money to defeat them.

“It is completely a scam that this is about the public’s right to know,” he said. “This is about campaign strategy. That is not a justification for regulating free speech.”

Aside from that, Dranias said there is no right for the public to know who is disseminating a message about a candidate, whether it is positive or negative.

“Anonymous speech is what got us to our Constitution,” Dranias said, referring to the Federalist Papers, which were published anonymously in the late 1780s and urged ratification of the United States Constitution.

Lawmakers expect to decide the matter soon. The bills, H2788 and S1444, are awaiting debate on each chamber’s floor and have cleared committees. In order for the statutory change to take effect this election cycle, the bills will have to be approved by two-thirds majorities in each chamber.

Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a Safford Republican, told the House Judiciary Committee he was worried about the haste with which lawmakers were considering a major change to campaign finance laws.

“I’m concerned that we don’t have the time to fully vet these components,” he said Feb. 25 when the committee heard H2788.