Arizona's publicly-funded Clean Elections campaign-finance program returned to court Monday. The case is the latest step in a decadelong effort to repeal the program passed by voters in 1998.
The focus of the hearing was whether a measure the Arizona Legislature put on the November 2012 ballot violates the state constitutional requirement that ballot measures focus on a single subject.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 1025 will ask voters to ban the spending of public funds for candidates and to transfer any funds already designated for that purpose to the state's general fund. The measure would apply to both the state's Clean Elections program and Tucson's public campaign-finance program, despite the fact that Tucson's program is funded with city money.
Attorneys for the Arizona Advocacy Network Foundation and other voter-advocacy groups alleged that the measure does four separate things: addresses both the state and the Tucson programs, as well as bans public campaign funding and sweeps existing funds.
"Voters have a right to vote on those things separately," attorney James Ahlers said. "Fund sweeps are neither topically related to a campaign fund ban nor logically related."
He said voters should have four separate ballot measures to consider, instead of allowing all four topics to be covered with a single vote.
Goldwater Institute attorney Clint Bolick argued on behalf of the defendants in the lawsuit.
"There is a common purpose," he said. "It prohibits public funding of campaigns by all Arizona governments."
Clean Elections gives a lump sum of public funds to participating statewide and legislative candidates who get a required number of $5 donations and agree not to accept money from special-interest groups. It draws its money primarily from voluntary donations made on tax-return forms and a surcharge tacked onto civil, criminal and traffic fines.
The program has faced court battles and opposition for years. This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the program that gave candidates extra money to match spending by privately financed opponents or supporters of those opponents. But under that ruling, Clean Elections can continue to give participants a lump sum up front.
Proponents and opponents said that while Monday's court battle was over legal details, the real issue is the survival of the program.
"This is really about big money in Arizona trying to repeal an anti-corruption law because they want to control through campaign contributions who gets to run, who gets elected and how tax cuts are given," said Sam Wercinski, with the Arizona Advocacy Network Foundation.
Jonathan Payton, a former state lawmaker from Tucson who has been pushing for the repeal of Clean Elections for years, said he's confident the measure will get the support of the courts and voters.
"It's wrong to give money to people to buy junk mail and yard signs," he said.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Dean Fink said he would rule on the issue at a later date but made clear he had no problem with requiring voters to cast a single vote to both ban and sweep funds. He said he was concerned about allowing the state to sweep funds from the Tucson program.
"This is local taxpayer funds designated for one purpose becoming part of the state's general fund," he said. "But I'm concerned about the city's money potentially being taken away."
He said Arizona voters may not understand that supporting this ballot measure could mean that Tucson would lose money.
Tucson's elections are held in odd years, so 2012 would be off the election cycle for them. In 2010, their last off-year, the fund had about $200,000 in it, according to a court document filed by city clerk Roger Randolph.
Bolick argued that it did make sense to give the state all the money from both programs.
"Tucson, like ever city, derives substantial funding from the (state's) general fund," he said.
Regardless of Fink's ruling, the losing side is expected to appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.