Proposed initiative would strengthen Clean Elections

Jeremy Duda//April 12, 2016

Proposed initiative would strengthen Clean Elections

Jeremy Duda//April 12, 2016

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Clean Elections advocates may have finally found a way to reverse the blow that Arizona’s public campaign funding system suffered five years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its lucrative matching funds program.

All they have to do now is gather nearly a quarter of a million signatures by July to place it on November’s ballot.

The progressive Arizona Advocacy Network is spearheading the campaign for a citizen initiative dubbed the Arizona Clean and Accountable Elections Act.

While aimed largely at strengthening the Clean Elections system, the initiative takes other steps that proponents touted said would increase transparency and accountability in elections, such as lowering campaign contribution limits, requiring more disclosure of anonymous “dark money,” scrapping controversial provisions from a recently passed campaign finance law and limiting lobbyists’ ability to pay for lawmakers’ travel.

Under the proposed system, legislative candidates who run with Clean Elections would have access to far more campaign cash. The current system provides only a lump sum for the primary election and again in the general election for candidates who win their party’s nomination.

The initiative would allow candidates to collect contributions of up to $160 from individual donors. The Citizens Clean Elections Commission would then provide a six-to-one match, giving publicly funded candidates a potentially huge infusion of cash. That means that for a single $160 contribution, a candidate would receive an additional $960 in Clean Elections funding.

Total matching funds to a campaign would be capped at four times the amount of the initial grant that candidates receive when they qualify for Clean Elections funding. And that amount would go up under the initiative. Currently, legislative candidates receive $16,044 for the primary election. The initiative would raise that amount to $20,000 for House candidates and $28,000 for Senate candidates.

“It revitalizes Clean Elections by creating a small-dollar match where I can solicit everyday citizens for contributions, and they can make reasonable contributions,” said attorney Jim Barton, who serves as counsel for the campaign. “What that does is that allows ordinary folks to contribute to elections in a way that you’ll be able to run competitive races with Clean Elections.”

While it makes Clean Elections funding more appealing, the initiative would reduce the money available to those running traditionally, with private funding. The initiative would reduce campaign contribution limits, currently set at $5,000, to $1,000 for legislative candidates and $2,500 for statewide candidates. A separate law that automatically reduces contribution limits by 20 percent would knock those numbers down to $800 and $2,000, respectively.

The proposed matching funds system would not be available to candidates for statewide office, which Barton said was a decision based on funding. As things stand, the campaign said the new program could cost as much as $5 million, which it said would be funded by a voluntary $10 contribution that Arizonans could opt into when they file their taxes.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the old matching funds system, in which Clean Elections candidates received extra cash when their privately funded opponents outspent them, was a violation of First Amendment free speech rights. Samantha Pstross, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, said the new plan won’t have that problem.

“What was taken away before was matching with your opponent, and this doesn’t do that. This is completely legal the way we’re doing it,” Pstross said.

Likely the biggest problem that the campaign will face is the monumental task of collecting enough signatures to refer it to the ballot in less than three months. In order to get the initiative on the November ballot, the campaign must collect at least 150,642 valid signatures by July 7, a task that will require significant financial resources.

In order to account for invalidated signatures, the campaign will need to collect substantially more than the minimum, and likely as many as 250,000 signatures.

Pstross said she’s confident that the campaign can achieve that goal. She said the proposals in the initiative are popular with Arizonans, who don’t want special interest groups influencing their elections. She vowed that the campaign would have the funding it needs.

“We have a large group of funders, both nationally and statewide. This is very much a grassroots effort on many levels,” Pstross said.

The initiative would strengthen Clean Elections in another way by granting the Clean Elections Commission the express authority to enforce all campaign finance laws in Arizona, not just those pertaining to Clean Elections, giving it concurrent jurisdiction with the Secretary of State’s Office.

The Clean Elections Commission has long argued that statute already grants it that authority. Secretary of State Michele Reagan vehemently disagrees, and has made several attempts to curb the authority claimed by the commission.

Barton said he agreed with the commission’s assessment that it can already regulate privately funded candidates. But the initiative would settle the question.

“Clean Elections already has this authority. It’s just clarifying it by putting it explicitly in the statute so there’s no confusion,” he said.

The initiative would take steps to tackle the dark money that has flooded into Arizona elections over the past several years. Any group that spends more than $10,000 on independent expenditure campaigns during a calendar year would be required to disclose the source of any contribution of at least $1,000 during that year.

Furthermore, the initiative would scrap a recently passed law that critics say will allow more dark money into Arizona elections and make it harder to crack down on anonymously funded groups that break the rules. SB1516 states that any group whose primary purpose is to influence elections in Arizona is a political committee subject to disclosure requirements. But the law exempts any organization that has federal nonprofit status from the IRS, hindering the state’s ability to regulate the 501(c)(4) organizations that are the most popular method of anonymous campaign spending.