By Alia Beard Rau, The Arizona Republic
The first two weeks of January are a financial feeding frenzy for Arizona lawmakers as they try to wipe out campaign debt and pad their coffers with enough money to sustain them for the next several months.
Arizona law forbids legislators from accepting donations when the Legislature is in session, typically from the second Monday of January until late April.
Lobbyists eager to curry favor pack their schedules with fundraiser dinners, cocktail parties and other events, writing check after check to legislators.
Officeholders typically have candidate-campaign accounts, but about a dozen state officials also have “constituent services” or officeholder accounts registered with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, funded almost exclusively by lobbyists because the state doesn’t provide money for constituent work.
Secretary of State’s Office spokesman Matt Roberts said money in officeholder accounts can be used for administrative purposes, travel and meeting with constituents, but not for candidates’ campaigns.
A campaign-financing watchdog group is concerned that lobbyists are funding the officeholder accounts as a way of gaining leverage with top legislative officials, and it plans to help introduce a bill to curb the practice.
The group tried unsuccessfully last year to propose legislation that would have given lawmakers Clean Elections money to use for these purposes.
Secretary of State’s Office records show that most of the constituent-services accounts currently open have no more than a couple of thousand dollars in them.
Lobbyists donated the vast majority of the money for both Republicans and Democrats.
Donors to the officeholder accounts are limited to giving $150 each election cycle. Roberts said officeholder accounts also have maximum total limits. State legislators, for example, can collect no more than $9,800.
Expenses incurred from officeholder accounts vary widely but include gas money, cellphone bills, dinners and paying for consultants.
Donations made this month — whether to candidate accounts or officeholder accounts — won’t be available for public review until the next filing deadline. Because this is not an election year, the next deadline is Jan. 31, 2014.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said he uses his account to help charities in his district.
In the past two years, he donated $500 from his account to a non-profit called Cash Community Sports. He paid eLect Strategies $328 for constituent e-mails and crime alerts.
“Last year, there was a charity in my old district that needed help with money to buy Easter baskets for kids, which is a tradition in this neighborhood,” Gallego said. “And once in a while I’ll use it, if I’m going to have a coffee talk with neighbors, to pay for the coffee or snacks.”
He said he can use campaign-contribution funds for that purpose as well, and sometimes does.
“I just don’t use the constituent fund for something that could be remotely looked at as politicking,” he said.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett spent $2,700 on travel and expenses to attend the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August. He also spent money on event dinners, website hosting, mailers and advertising.
When asked about Bennett using his officeholder account to attend the RNC, Roberts said Bennett “felt the expenditure best fit this committee since he met with our election-results website vendor, gave speeches as the secretary of state, met with constituents and other elected officials from around the country.”
The Arizona Advocacy Network, which promotes civic participation in politics, supported legislation last year that would have designated $855,000 from the state’s Clean Elections program for state lawmakers’ officeholder expense accounts.
The bill failed, but Executive Director Sam Wercinski said the group hopes to introduce similar legislation again this year. He said lawmakers, especially those from rural areas, need funds to reach their constituents.
“We see this as a means to create accountability,” he said, adding that he’s concerned about the current source of the officeholder-account contributions. “It’s typically lobbyists and special-interest groups.”
Here are some items officials have spent money on in the past two years:
Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, claimed $650 in mileage.
Sen. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma, paid political consultant Primary Consultants $500 for “constituent issues.”
Rep. Macario Saldate, D-Tucson, spent $148 on a monthly constituency meeting in Tucson. He also spent $225 for two meals with his constituent steering committee at Los Portales restaurant in Tucson.
Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, D-Tucson, spent $50 on membership to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, $20 for membership to the Arizona Women’s Political Caucus, $20 for membership to the Gates Pass Neighborhood Association in Tucson, $25 membership dues to Planned Parenthood and $15 dues to the National Organization for Women.
Rep. Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, spent $306 for a hospitality suite.
Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, paid herself $200 for “administration” costs. She also spent $228 on Amazon for office supplies.
Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, spent $1,318 on gas for meetings.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, reimbursed herself $535 for cellphone-use costs.
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