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House panel passes bill increasing money in Arizona politics

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A bill overhauling the state’s campaign finance laws that passed a House panel Tuesday would allow politicians to give campaign contributions to each other, a move critics call the “kingmaker provision.”

The GOP secretary of state’s office and Republicans who support the bill say it’s a housecleaning measure to simplify the state’s complicated election regulations, despite making substantial changes to current law that increase the influence of money on Arizona politics.

The kingmaker provision would allow politicians who are running campaigns or have leftover money from a campaign to give as much as $6,250 to other politicians through candidate campaigns.

Rep. Ken Clark, a Phoenix Democrat, said the measure would let politicians buy influence from their colleagues using campaign contributions. A similar provision was outlawed in 1986, he said.

“It means we are not making laws based on merits and policies. We are making laws based on who is paying off who, and that is a tectonic shift,” Clark said.

Republican Rep. J.D. Mesnard of Chandler said it would not substantially change current law, which allows political committees to accept money on behalf of one candidate and then give it to another. Also, politicians are already allowed to give personal donations to colleagues, he said.

“That reality exists now,” he said, adding Congress has similar rules.

A second provision weakens earmarking rules that prevent politicians from giving money to colleagues with the intention they will give it to someone else.

The new rule narrows the definition of earmarking so there would need to be an agreement between politicians for it to be breaking the law, said Tom Collins, executive director of the state’s Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

A wink and a nod, however, could be enough, he said.

“On one hand, (the bill) allows candidates to spend money on other candidates to wield new influence inside the political system, and it’s coupled with a weak restriction on earmarking,” Collins said.

State elections director Eric Spencer said current law is unclear and the secretary of state’s office designed the bill to provide more certainty for politicians.

Senate Bill 1516 passed the House Elections Committee on a 5-2, party-line vote. The Senate passed the bill last week with only Republican support.

Dark money — generally defined as political groups that do not report their donors — is at the center of the debate over the campaign finance proposal that would let such groups double what they spend on ballot measures. It also would let nonprofit groups spend more money influencing elections without having to reveal donors.

Spencer said he spent much of the past year working with interested parties to craft the new system, which would make it easier for candidates to run for office, increase the frequency of campaign finance reports and add key enforcement tools.

He believes changes in the law to keep donors secret are important for the democratic process.

“We think that the area of dark money is something that needs to be addressed but has yet to be addressed in practical way,” Spencer said.

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