Judge voids key pieces of Arizona law gutting campaign finance rules

A judge has ruled that Arizona lawmakers violated the state Constitution on multiple fronts when they passed a sweeping overhaul of campaign-finance laws in 2016.

Story by Dustin Gardiner, Arizona Republic

Those changes illegally limit the power of the voter-approved Citizens Clean Elections Commission to police campaign-finance laws and illegallycreate loopholes for spending limits, the ruling states.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge David Palmer ruled that the changes are unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.

Victory for election transparency

The ruling is the latest twist in a fight over Senate Bill 1516, a major rewrite of campaign- finance laws that the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey pushed in 2016.

At the center of the dispute is the voter-approved Clean Elections Act of 1998.

Voters approved the act to limit the influence of money in politics. The act created the Clean Elections Commission, which runs a public financing system for candidates and enforces financial reporting rules.

SB 1516 significantly shrank the commission's power so it could police only candidates who receive public financing.

The Arizona Advocacy Network, an open-election watchdog group, Democrats and the commission challenged the law in court, arguing it illegally gutted the act's meaning.

Palmer, in his ruling, agreed: "The commission and the plaintiffs are correct."

Attorney Jim Barton, who argued against SB 1516, said the ruling is a victory for transparency in elections. He said the Clean Elections Commission has shown it is more willing to enforce rules than state elections officials.

“It’s very clear that that watchdog isn’t going to be restrained," Barton said Thursday.

Joel Edman, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, cheered the ruling in an email: "As Arizonans, we know Clean Elections is the best tool we have to fight corruption, dark money, and undue corporate influence."

Secretary of State Michele Reagan, the state's top elections official, was a key architect of the law. Although an appeal is likely, her office hasn't commented in detail.

"We're taking a look and determining next steps," spokesman Matt Roberts said in a text message.

Ruling also impacts party spending

Palmer's ruling also overturned a controversial provision of SB 1516 that allowed political parties to spend unlimited amounts of money in coordination with candidate campaigns.

That loophole played a key role in this year's elections, with Republicans spending millions in coordination with Ducey and the Democratic Party doing the same with Secretary of State-elect Katie Hobbs.

Under the 2016 law, the parties didn't have to disclose how much was spent on behalf of each candidate, making it impossible to track their spending.

Barton said the ruling will change that because money a party spends in coordination with a candidate's campaign will once again fall under traditional limits for in-kind expenditures.

Impacts to some unlimited donations

The ruling also strikes down a portion of SB 1516 that allowed unlimited contributions if they specifically paid for a campaign's legal or accounting services.

Palmer ruled that the disputed portions of the act violated a portion of the Arizona Constitution that prohibits changes to voter-approved initiatives unless the changes are supported by three-fourths of the Legislature and further the purpose of the act.

"One cannot determine in this case, given the purposes behind the (Clean Elections Act), that voters intended that the Legislature would in essence eradicate the very core of the act," he wrote.

However, the ruling didn't undo a portion of SB 1516 that largely ceded Arizona's authority to police anonymous campaign spending, or so-called "dark money," to the federal government.

The legality of that portion of the law wasn't addressed in Wednesday's ruling.