Arizona's clean-election law is pruned, but not uprooted

  • Ann Telnaes, used with the permission of Ann Telnaes and the Cartoonist Group. All rights reserved.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, a string of political scandals left Arizona voters incensed. Ultra-conservative Gov. Evan Mecham was impeached in 1988 for misusing campaign contributions. The next year, both Arizona U.S. senators, Dennis DeConcini, D, and John McCain, R, were accused of corruption for meddling in an investigation of Lincoln Savings and Loan, a bank chaired by major campaign donor Charles Keating. The bank's collapse in '89 cost the federal government $3 billion. The Senate Ethics Committee found that DeConcini acted improperly and McCain showed "poor judgment."

Then, in early 1991, hidden cameras caught state legislators stuffing cash into gym bags, after promising a man posing as a Las Vegas mobster to vote to legalize gambling in Arizona. The year-and-a-half investigation found politicians, lobbyists and others accepting bribes, laundering money and filing false campaign financial statements. Dubbed "AzScam," the scandal resulted in 17 indictments.

In 1998, a still-angry electorate passed the Clean Elections Act, a ballot measure designed to level the playing field for candidates of relatively modest means running against those bankrolled by powerful donors or their own personal fortunes. Qualifying candidates finance their campaigns with public funding, freeing them of the need to court big contributors.

"Voters wanted to get special interests out of politics," says Ruth Jones, an Arizona State University political science professor.

It was a pioneering effort to temper the power of money in elections, preceding even the 2002 federal campaign finance reform fashioned by McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Candidates opting to use public financing promise to limit personal spending to $500, participate in at least one public debate and return unspent money to the state. To qualify for the funds -- raised by a surcharge on civil and  criminal  fines -- and  prove they are viable and well-organized, candidates collect $5 contributions from voters in their district. Those running for the state Legislature need at least 220 contributions. Though participants agree to overall spending limits, if a privately backed opponent spends over a set threshold, the publicly funded contender gets dollar-for- dollar matching funds up to a point.

At least, that's how it used to work. In Arizona and around the nation, campaign finance laws have a curious way of wilting or being uprooted over time. Laws passed in Portland, Ore., and Massachusetts, for instance, were eventually repealed. And now, clean-elections laws at both the federal and state level face an increasingly hostile U.S. Supreme Court, which has asserted that money in politics is equivalent to free speech.

In 2006, the Supreme Court, under conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, deemed Vermont's clean-elections law, which boasted the lowest campaign-contribution limits in the country, unconstitutional. In 2008, it struck down the so-called "millionaire's amendment" in McCain-Feingold, which kept wealthy candidates from drowning out competing voices by allowing their opponents to accept higher contributions from individual donors. Two years later, the High Court ruled in the highly publicized Citizens United case that, so long as they don't directly coordinate with a particular campaign, anonymous donors can spend as much as they like on politicking, through "SuperPACs" or political action committees -- a total reversal of McCain-Feingold. And last summer, split 5-4 along partisan lines, the Court decided that Arizona's use of public funds to match high spending by privately financed campaigns was unconstitutional.

Those matching funds were instrumental in keeping races between publicly and privately funded candidates competitive by allowing the former to respond quickly to expensive last-minute attacks, even if they'd exhausted their initial  public grant. Two-thirds of those running for office in Arizona used public funding during the 2006 and 2008 elections. In 2010, with matching funds on hold pending litigation, half of the candidates participated. This year, it's expected to be lower still.

"Our thinking is that with the elimination of matching funds, the (public financing) system will wither away," says Marcus Osborn, a lobbyist for the Goldwater Institute and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, two of the groups that sued over the Arizona law. That's fine with Osborn, who says it was too easy for radical candidates to qualify for public financing, causing "election distortion."

Some others agree that Arizona's clean-elections laws helped bring a more diverse -- and sometimes more radical -- Legislature into power by encouraging candidates who would have been unable to run otherwise. But it also forced candidates to interact more with their constituents to get those $5 contributions. "You get to see people up close, people get to see you up close, you get to know their concerns and issues up close," says former Tucson Mayor Thomas Volgy, a University of Arizona political science professor. "That (relationship) is not something that gets created in a TV studio."

Clean-elections fans should, perhaps, be grateful Arizona's program still exists at all. In early April, a repeal looked set to go to voters in November. The bill, introduced by Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, was marketed as "no taxpayer money for politicians." (Actually, the program makes money and returns its surplus to the state -- a total of $64 million so far.) Clean Elections Commission Executive Director Todd Lang says he's confident the public would have voted to keep the program. But, after negotiating, the two groups announced a compromise: One source of income, an option for taxpayers to divert $5 toward the program, will be removed and the program's educational activities will be limited. A full repeal won't appear on the ballot.

The commission has been simultaneously stoic and sanguine. "The program would work more efficiently if we still had matching funds," says Lang, who thinks it can fashion a new system providing some public matching funds that will hold up in court.

No one knows what the full effect of losing the millionaire's amendment, matching-funds provisions and donation limits to SuperPACs will be, at either the state or federal level. "We may have to wade through an election cycle or two and see what happens," says Jones, a former clean elections commissioner. "If, as the opponents of Citizens United suggest, it gets really wild, then the people might come back with some reform movement." Winds that blow from one direction can, in time, blow from another.

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