For the second time in two years, state lawmakers are voting to increase the amount of money they can take from private donors.
Legislation approved Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee would let individuals and political action committee give up to $5,000 every election to any candidate for statewide or legislative office. That is $1,000 more than now.
More to the point, the maximum anyone could give a statewide candidate two years ago was just $912. And legislative hopefuls were limited to just $440.
The 4-3 party-line vote on HB 2415 to give private donors more influence also comes as state lawmakers are moving separately to ask voters to repeal the Citizens Clean Elections Act. That optional system provides public funds for candidates that agree not to take private dollars.
That twin path got the attention of Tom Collins, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
“At the end of the day, voters don’t want more money in politics,” he said. “There is a disconnect between what voters want to have happen and what some of the folks who are interested in this legislation desire.”
And Collins pointed out that existing $4,000 limit gets increased every year according to inflation, without any legislative action.
“Inflation is not 25 percent the last time I checked,” he said.
But Matt Roberts, spokesman for Secretary of State Michele Reagan, who crafted the legislation, defended the increase. He pointed out that congressional candidates can take up to $5,400 from individual donors.
“In what universe is it good government where a statewide candidate who has to communicate to seven million residents cannot raise as much as a federal candidate who communicates to one-ninth of the population?” Roberts asked.
He conceded those same $5,000 limits also apply to legislative candidates who, using his logic, have to get their message out to just one-thirtieth of the population. But Roberts said that Reagan still thinks the higher limits are appropriate, even for those seeking state House and Senate seats.
“We felt strongly that this bill would raise the rates so that candidates can better communicate with their constituents,” he said.
James Manley, an attorney for the Goldwater Institute, said the legislation “increases everyone’s ability to participate by raising everyone’s contribution limits.”
“That’s a nice theory,” said Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix.
“But the reality is, not everybody has that money,” he continued. “Only certain people have the ability to give in those amounts.”
And the net result of letting people give more, he said, is that donors have a greater influence on those who accept those larger contributions.
As Reagan pushes to let privately funded candidates like her take more money, Roberts said she supports SCR1001, the measure that seek to kill the 1998 voter-approved law that allows but does not require candidates for statewide and legislative office to get public dollars by not taking outside cash. The cost is borne largely by a surcharge on civil, criminal and traffic fines.
The measure already has been approved by the Senate and awaits House action. The final word would belong to voters in 2016.
“It’s high time voters should consider whether the program should continue and whether or not there should be public financing of candidates,” Roberts said of Reagan’s beliefs.