Arizona Advocacy Network

Government of, by and for the People

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Foes of public financing of elections who are hoping to get voters to kill the system next year have gone to court to squelch some of its spending to influence the public.

Legal papers filed in Maricopa County Superior Court contend the Citizens Clean Elections Commission is illegally using public funds to influence the outcome of an election. Attorneys for the Goldwater Institute, representing former state Sen. Jonathan Paton and his No Taxpayer Money for Politicians Group, want a judge to bar future spending and order repayment of funds they contend were improperly spent.

But Todd Lang, the commission's executive director, said nothing illegal is being done. He said the 1998 voter-approved law not only empowers his agency to spend money educating voters about the system but actually requires that there be a public relations campaign to promote it as a better alternative to having candidates seek donations from special interests.

"What they're really trying to do is silence our program," Lang said.

It will be up to Judge Mark Brain to decide who is right.

The law allows - but does not require - candidates for statewide and legislative office to get public funding if they agree not to solicit private donations. The amounts available depend on the office sought.

Most of the money comes from a surcharge on civil, criminal and traffic fines. But there also are dollar-for-dollar tax credits available to donors.

Business interests have tried repeatedly to kill the program without success. Now there is a plan to put a measure on the 2012 ballot to constitutionally bar the use of public dollars to finance political campaigns, a move that, if approved, would effectively kill the program.

A different judge ruled this summer that last year's vote by the Legislature to put the issue on the ballot was flawed. But Paton said he will fix the problem and put the issue back on the ballot.

The problem, according to the Goldwater lawyers, is that the commission spent money to keep voters from getting to make that decision and is likely to do the same this session to block Paton's move.

They cite the $6,500 a month being paid to a lobbyist as well as the $5.5 million paid to a media firm since July 2008. That firm, in turn, came up with an "education plan" that was designed, at least in part to counter "opposition to the system and intent to eliminate it."

The lawsuit also cites various e-mails involving Lang's efforts to short-circuit that measure.

"We feel that they are expending public funds in an attempt to influence the outcome of an election," he said.

Lang does not deny that he actively worked to kill the legislation to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot, or even that money was spent to convince Arizonans of the benefits of public financing, complete with a campaign with the theme that "Clean Elections works in Arizona."

"If there's misinformation out there that's going to turn people off, it's our obligation to correct that so that people understand Clean Elections is a good program that works, gives them an opportunity to get involved" in politics, he said. "The fact that ‘Clean Elections works in Arizona' is part of our message I think is a valid one and important."

Paton acknowledged the law requires the commission to spend some of its money on voter education. But he said that is limited to things like telling people the mechanics of the system and mailing out the biennial brochures with statements from each candidate on the ballot.

"It's something totally different when you're using that money to basically extol the virtues of Clean Elections itself," he said.

Lang, however, does not read the law that narrowly. He said the commission is entitled to try to influence any legislation that affects the operation of the Clean Elections system, including anything that would eliminate it entirely.

Paton also said the commission's media firm, Moses Anshell, proposed a public relations campaign designed to get Arizonans to convince their lawmakers not to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot. But Lang said that was simply what the firm proposed, not the plan that was ultimately adopted, and that the advertising that ultimately was produced promoting the benefits of public financing was "part of our normal education program."