Senate panel approves Clean Elections repeal measure

Jeremy Duda//February 19, 2015

Senate panel approves Clean Elections repeal measure

Jeremy Duda//February 19, 2015

Main-image620Republican critics of Clean Elections have renewed their long-term goal of convincing voters to repeal Arizona’s system of public campaign funding and are hoping that some extra money for K-12 education will help sweeten the deal.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved SCR1001, which would refer the issue to the 2016 ballot. A similar measure has been proposed in the House.

If the measure makes it to the ballot, voters will be asked to repeal the Citizens Clean Elections Act they approved in 1998, except for a surcharge on court fines and penalties. The money in that fund, which contains about $19 million, would shift to the Arizona Department of Education.

Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, who sponsored the measure, said voters should get to decide whether they want the money to go politicians’ campaigns or to schools.

“I brought this forward with a group of people who believe it’s time. Clean Elections has been there for 15 years. I think it’s fair to ask the voter to reevaluate the program,” he said.

But Tom Collins, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, decried the proposal as a gimmick.

“When you look at this act, this bill, it’s misleading because it asks voters to choose between two different and entirely unrelated policies,” Collins told the committee.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said it’s fair to ask voters if they still support Clean Elections, but said it should be a simple yes-or-no vote on whether to keep the system.

“If we are going ask voters that question, we should it in a fair way,” he said. “To put the choice between education and Clean Elections is very unfair to the voters and I cannot support that question.”

Opponents of SCR1001 also raised the question of whether it violates the single-subject clause in the Arizona Constitution, which states that statutory changes “shall embrace but one subject and matters properly connected therewith.”

Single-subject issues resulted in the downfall of the Legislature’s last attempt to repeal Clean Elections in 2011. The Legislature that year approved a measure for the 2012 ballot that would have barred publicly funded campaign systems and diverted leftover money to the state’s general fund. But a judge ruled that the measure, which also would have scrapped Tucson’s municipal campaign financing system and swept its funds, violated the single-subject clause.

Collins has repeatedly argued that the recent proposals will meet the same fate.

“Suffice it to say that the principles embodied in the Arizona Constitution are that measures should be passed in a straightforward manner. And looking at the plain language of this bill it’s very difficult for me to understand how it’s straightforward,” Collins said in committee.

Pierce and other proponents of SCR1001 argue that things are different this time. Elections attorney Timothy La Sota told the committee that there’s no issue with the proposed ballot measure determining where Clean Elections’ money should go when the public campaign funding system is gone.

“When you close up any agency, there’s two things you do. You essentially take away that agency’s duties and you also do something with the money,” said La Sota, a longtime critic of Clean Elections. “It’s not even arguable. There is no single subject issue.”

Furthermore, La Sota said the single-subject provisions of the Arizona Constitution don’t apply to statutory changes made via ballot measure, only to those made by the Legislature itself. The single-subject, or separate-amendment rule, only applies to constitutional amendments, he said. The 2011 measure that was struck down by the courts.

The committee’s Democrats, who voted unanimously against SCR1001, defended what they said were the merits of the public campaign funding system. Quezada said it’s unlikely he would be in the Legislature today had he not been able to use Clean Elections to win his first election, and said he was thankful that he didn’t have to be beholden to special interests.

Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Sahuarita, also said she was thankful that she didn’t have to accept money from political action committees. Dalessandro said her district has high poverty rates that would make it difficult to raise much money from her constituents.

“I don’t have access to a lot of money in my district. Many candidates are in this situation. And with so many people in my district living in poverty … it makes gathering the big bucks really, really difficult for some candidates, who are good candidates but not connected to the money streams,” she said.

Collins said there would be other negative consequences to repealing Clean Elections, including the elimination of voter education programs, debates and independent expenditure reporting, as well as an increase in campaign contribution limits for privately funded candidates. Clean Elections statutes automatically cut the state’s campaign contribution limit by 20 percent, which reduces the current limits to $4,000 from $5,000.

Clean Elections candidates are required by law to participate in at least one debate. Dalessandro said many will opt not to debate at all if Clean Elections is abolished.

“We saw last election so many candidates just refused to speak in public at all. I guess that’s their right but it isn’t really good for the voters,” Dalessandro said.

La Sota saw some upsides to eliminating other parts of the Clean Elections Act, such as ceasing expensive self-promotional campaigns or its recently asserted authority to enforce campaign finance laws against privately funded candidates. He accused the commission of turning itself into a self-appointed “super cop.”

Clean Elections has changed a lot since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 blocked it from issuing matching funds, which provided extra cash to participating candidates who were outspent by privately funded opponents, La Sota said. He described the commission’s recent enforcement actions against privately funded candidates as a response to that Supreme Court ruling.

SCR1001 now awaits a vote of the full Senate.
“We already have a system. We had a system in place with the Clean Elections Commission came on the scene to investigate and punish campaign finance law enforcements,” La Sota said.

-Reporter Gary Grado contributed to this report.