Capitol Media: AZ Clean Elections Opponents Give Up Fight

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

A major business group has given up on its perennial, and largely unsuccessful to date, effort to kill public financing of elections.

Compromise legislation worked out earlier this month would curb some of the activities of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission in promoting the organization. The new measure also would end the ability of taxpayers to get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to help candidates run for office.

In exchange, foes of public financing have agreed to scrap plans to ask voters to kill the system outright, a ballot fight that likely would be expensive.

Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, acknowledged that his organization's opposition goes back to 1998, before he even arrived in Arizona, when the business group fought unsuccessfully against the voter-approved law. Several court battles to overturn the law championed by the chamber also faltered.

But Hamer said there was one notable exception: The U.S. Supreme Court last year voided one provision that provided publicly funded candidates a dollar-for-dollar match every time their privately financed foes spent more.

"That was the big issue for us," Hamer said.

He said that match effectively undermined chamber-backed candidates because the business funding automatically resulted in more cash for the people the chamber wanted defeated.

Hamer said that, with this deal, his organization is now willing to co-exist with the law.

That 1998 voter-approved law allows but does not require candidates for statewide and legislative office to get public dollars for their campaigns if they agree not to take other outside cash. The amount is based on the office being sought.

A majority of the cash comes from a surcharge on civil, criminal and traffic fines. But nearly half comes from a state income-tax credit available to donors, a system that takes money out of the General Fund.

Last year, business interests and other foes of public financing persuaded lawmakers to approve a ballot measure asking voters to constitutionally ban any public dollars from being used by candidates.

That language was declared illegal by a judge. Foes of public financing had recast it to comply with the court ruling and were prepared to send it to the ballot.

But that led to another fight: whether the commission was trying to stack the deck.

State law does allow the commission to use 10 percent of what it collects for voter education.

Those trying to kill public financing, led by former state Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, argued that much of that cash was designed to oppose the referendum.

A state judge disagreed. But the issue was headed to an appellate court.

The deal between supporters and foes of public financing resolves all that. The law is being amended to specifically prohibit the use of voter-education funds to promote the benefits of the Clean Elections Act.

"In other words, no billboards at the hockey game, no TV ads saying, 'Clean Elections is a wonderful thing,' " said state Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, who helped broker the deal.

Exactly where that line is, however, may be subject to interpretation.

"In my view, we do exactly what we've always done," said Todd Lang, the commission's executive director.

He said the commission will still be able to use the money it gets to publicize why people should choose to run with public financing and how they can make that happen. And he said the billboards and ads on websites will remain.

"They're very effective," Lang said.

But where some have statements now like "Good politics" and how Clean Elections is "Good for Arizona," the new message instead will urge people to get involved in politics and run for office, and that public funding is available.

The other part of the deal relates to the source of the money.

Lang said about $6 million a year comes from those dollar-for-dollar tax credits.

He said eliminating those credits will not hurt the system, adding that the commission has been giving an extra $10 million a year in surplus money to the state General Fund.

That still leaves the commission able to collect the surcharges on fines that Todd said brings in about $15 million a year.

Lang said he believes that, had the repeal of public financing been put on the ballot, voters would have rejected it. "Ultimately, we thought discretion was the better part of valor."

McComish said he sees a negotiated deal as preferable to another ballot fight. He also said he agrees with Hamer that, at least from his perspective, efforts to kill public financing are now dead.

He said this deal restricting how the commission can spend its money is not part of some plan to undermine its public perception and then spring a new renewal effort for the 2014 ballot.

The original article can be viewed here.