By Austin Counts
While the Supreme Court discussed the constitutionality of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act this week, a larger fight looms in the Arizona House of Representatives as the two-pronged offensive on public campaign financing continues.
By June, the U.S. Supreme Court should decide the fate of the matching funds provision in Clean Elections, but Arizona voters may have the option to repeal Clean Elections on the 2012 ballot, if the Arizona House of Representatives passes Senate Concurrent Resolution 1025 – SCR1025 – in the upcoming weeks.
State Senators Steve Pierce and Scott Bundgaard are the sponsors of SCR1025, which passed the State Senate on Feb. 28, 2011. The resolution was forwarded to the House in early March.
“The lawsuit and the repeal are two separate entities with two different motives, but the people who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit are also in favor for a repeal,” said Todd Lang, Executive Director of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
Arizona voted in favor of Clean Elections in 1998, allowing candidates a chance to accept public funding in lieu of special-interest contributions, thus running clean.
Potential clean candidates must collect a set amount of five-dollar donations from registered voters to qualify and cannot receive contributions over $100 during the qualifying period of time. Once the candidate meets the criteria, they are eligible to receive an allotment of public funds to finance their campaign.
Candidates who run traditionally have the amount of contributions they receive restricted and can trigger matching funds if they spend over what the Clean Elections candidates originally received.
“The majority of the campaigners don’t need the full allotment,” said Lang. “We give them one-third and then give the remaining two-thirds as matching funds, so that it goes where it’s needed.”
Lang’s statement is the reason why Supreme Court justices are deciding whether Clean Elections is unconstitutional and has state politicians trying to repeal it.
“The crucial breakdown in the discussion centers around the Clean Elections Act matching funds provision,” said Tim Keller, Executive Director of the Institute for Justice-Arizona Chapter. “The harder one candidate works, the more the other candidate gets.”
Keller’s group is one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case arguing that matching funds is unconstitutional because it stifles the First Amendment right to free speech.
“Anything that causes your speech to trigger monetary benefits to your opponents is going to place a chill on your ability to raise and spend funds,” said Keller.
Lang disagrees with this argument. In his opinion, Clean Elections is designed to promote free speech, and that is what opponents are against.
“What they are really arguing here is the First Amendment not only protects freedom of speech, but freedom from rebuttal,” said Lang. “That’s what they’re complaining about, the fact that their opponent will be able to respond to attack ads.”
The Supreme Court stated the lawsuit was not about getting rid of Clean Elections, just the matching funds provision. However, Lang believes both the lawsuit and the repeal are a part of an effort led by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.
“A publicly funded elections scheme that’s currently operating in our state is a misuse of public funds in a time when budgets are bleeding red ink,” said Garrick Taylor, spokesperson for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. “Bankrolling junk mail and yard signs aren’t a good use of public funding.”
It’s no surprise to Lang that the Chamber of Commerce wants to repeal Clean Elections. This is because they want to return to the old system where the Chamber of Commerce, according to Lang, funded many of the candidates.
“I don’t begrudge them for [their position], that’s the only way you get folks who support Clean Elections to consider a vote against it,” said Lang. “But, to imply that publicly financed campaigns are hurting our other programs is misleading.”
Funding for Clean Elections does not come from the state General Fund – the place our tax dollars go – but a separate fund that has strict methods of generating revenue.
Taxpayers can donate to the Clean Elections fund for tax credit, there’s a ten percent surcharge on civil and criminal fines from traffic tickets and if a candidate is ordered to pay civil penalties. Outside of that, no other taxpayer money goes toward Clean Elections.
Independent political groups like the Greater Phoenix Tea Party complain of bureaucracy attached to Clean Elections and are split on whether it’s beneficial to their cause, according to Claire Van Steenwyk, president of the Greater Phoenix Tea Party.
“It’s a 50/50 split, a lot of people don’t like government funding” said Van Steenwyk. “Others feel without it, they wouldn’t have a shot at public office.”
The consensus among the group, according to Steenwyk, is Clean Elections make a candidate go through unnecessary paperwork and trips to the State Capitol during the qualifying period.
“In trying to make [Clean Elections] fair, they’ve skewed it so much to the Progressive side that it’s almost impossible to meet all the standards they’ve set,” said Van Steenwyk.
The standards set for keeping it safe from special interest money is an investment, according to Tim Carpenter, National President of the Progressive Democrats of America.
“We think it’s a good investment,” said Carpenter. “Just like investing in clean air and clean water, we should invest in Clean Elections.”
Carpenter is quick to recite the Clean Elections mantra – “it levels the playing field and allows candidates to run equally.” He witnessed an early version of Clean Elections style campaigning when he worked for Gov. Jerry Brown during his 1992 presidential bid against President George H.W. Bush. Brown proclaimed during his stump speech that his campaign would not accept contributions over $100.
“Our argument is we would rather spend the cost of a happy meal to get special-interest money out of elections,” said Carpenter. “If Arizona does away with clean elections, it would be another black eye for a state under attack for draconian immigration laws.”
According to Keller, Clean Elections actually promote an interest-group mentality, instead of fostering debate. He describes the bipartisan divide in the State Senate as ideological and a direct result of Clean Elections.
“Political candidates don’t have to be held accountable to their donors for their message,” said Keller. “They can play dirty and not be held accountable for their voting behavior, either.”
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce agrees with Keller’s position and hopes the repeal of Clean Elections will be on the 2012 ballot, according to Taylor. “It’s time for voters to revisit this,” he said.
But to Lang and the folks at the AZ Citizens Clean Elections Commission, talk of repeal is nothing new. He is confident Arizona voters will support clean elections, citing a 77 percent approval rating taken from a recent survey conducted by the commission.
“The Chamber of Commerce and others are unhappy with the choice voters are making,” said Lang. “Instead of educating the voter, they want to limit the choices they can make and not let people run.”
Clean Elections do what they’re intended to do – change the traditional approach to running an effective political campaign, while allowing average citizens a chance at public office. Whether the act is constitutional or how Arizona voters will respond if a Clean Elections repeal makes the 2012 ballot remains to be decided.
“In a democracy, it really should be the voters who make the final choice on who represents them,” said Lang.