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Arizona Politics,

Where Cash Is King

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Lawmakers, Elections Officials, And Analysts Discuss The Notion Of Money As A Form Of Political Speech And Its Effects On Voter Power And Candidate Ballot Access

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By Chris G. Braswell
Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 6, 2014 — Ever since the first democracy in Athens initiated its first electoral process, money has played an integral part in framing and formulating the discussion and sometimes the outcomes of elections.

Whether the example be the forefathers of Pericles in Athens or a more contemporary one, the democratic principle is that regular people have a say in the result. But those with resources have always used those resources to help bring about a political outcome they desire.

It’s almost as natural as the best lion ruling the pride.

U.S. history is littered with such examples. Take the 1896 election, as one example. Wealthy industrialists poured millions into William McKinley’s campaign and successfully kept the populist William Jennings Bryan from regulating or nationalizing their industries. Of course, history knows that after McKinley was shot by an anarchist, Theodore Roosevelt would usher in the biggest period of trust busting that has ever been seen.

Over the ensuing 100 years, the political process was regulated yet campaign spending continued to increase. Fast forward to the present day and the power of the all-mighty dollar is nearly as omnipotent as it was in 1896.

When the U.S. Supreme Court revealed their Citizens United Decision, corporate and monied interests cheered and democrats — who rely more on smaller, personal donations — fretted. After all, with unlimited spending, wouldn’t corporate America be able to spend their way to a victory in both the Congress and the White House?

But some professional academics such as political scientist Michael Franz claim that the 2012 election revealed that spending no longer determines who wins an election. Franz’ study of the 2012 election showed that most of the big money donors — that gambled on Mitt Romney and lost — put their money down a black hole.

Yet, many fear that the past two elections where millions were spent on a loser might just be attributable to a perfect candidate like Barack Obama, who, while severely hated in some circles, reaches demographics that makes him a virtual lock in any election in which he chose to participate.

Call him the young lion who usurps the pride leader no matter how much cash he has.

And, although the Citizens United decision is not applicable to state and local elections — more on this later — many fear it may eventually set precedents that will trickle all the way down to municipal elections.

Today, in Arizona, candidates for elected office have another choice than to submit to the campaign donor system and can run as a  “Clean Elections” candidate. Candidates who participate in the program have won many seats in government, including former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s two wins and the current governor, Jan Brewer. Yet, the act has been under constant attack by a faction of the conservative base since it was first approved by voters.

Ballot Access

In 1998, voters passed the Arizona Clean Elections Act of 1998 which enshrined the Arizona Clean Elections Act into the state constitution, which provides a system for ballot access for “average-citizen” candidates, who wish to forgo relations with special interest groups as sources for high-stakes capital campaign financing, or who do not have the support of wealthy private benefactors. To qualify, they must get a certain number of $5 donations from registered voters — which they must turn over to the Arizona Clean Elections Commission.

After years of attacks, the Arizona legislature had two bills introduced in 2010 that would have terminated the program but they did not get passed. In June 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the program’s matching funds component. That provision provided additional financing to participating candidates beyond the standard financing amounts in order to match donations of a non-participating candidate that financed privately and raised significant sums.

In 2012, and with a super-majority, the Arizona legislature managed to pass a bill that was scheduled to put a full repeal of Clean Elections onto the ballot. Introduced by Sen. John McComish, the ballot measure was removed in October 2012 by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Fink. The basis of the ruling was that it would not just end Clean Elections but all public financing of candidates, including a program exclusive to Tucson. Because of that consequence, Fink ruled the measure violated the state’s single-subject rule — that any ballot initiative can only address one question.

In 2013, the Arizona Legislature passed a bill that raised campaign donation limits from $912 for statewide offices to $2,000 for both the primary and general elections. Legislative donation limits were likewise increased, but from a former cap of $440. The previous limits had been established by the Clean Elections Act in 1998 and were to only be adjusted by inflation. The Arizona Court of Appeals rejected the new limits but were reversed by the Arizona Supreme Court in December.

Recent victories from conservatives on Clean Elections were not enough to keep ending the program out of the current session. A currently pending bill at the 51st Arizona Legislature is House concurrent resolution 2023 (http://www.azleg.gov/legtext/51leg/2r/bills/hcr2023p.pdf), would repeal all of Arizona Revised Statute (Title 16, Chapter 6, Article 2) related to the Clean Elections program (http://www.azleg.gov/ArizonaRevisedStatutes.asp?Title=16). The author of the HCR 2023 is Javan Mesnard, district 17.

Arizona Rep. Paul Boyer, district 20 said, “if his passes, or if my version that I have not introduced yet passes, it won’t affect voters in 2014,” Boyer said, “it will affect candidates in 2016.”

Boyer, said while he supports HCR 2023, he does not support killing the program entirely.

“I am OK with the debates that Clean Elections provide,” Boyer said. Boyer is in his freshman term at the state legislature, and although he was not a Clean Elections-financed candidate, he participated in a Clean Elections-sponsored debate during his campaign last year. Clean Elections debates are mandatory for Clean Elections candidates only, but non-sponsored candidates may also choose to participate (http://www.azcleanelections.gov/2009-2010-docs/R2-20-107_Candidate_Debates_3.sflb.ashx.

“I would like to remove the public financing component, that’s my biggest concern,” Boyer said. “I think that money would be better spent on education.”

Budgeting Nuances

Clean Elections gets its funding from a 10 percent surcharge on all civil penalties and fines, civil penalties paid by non-conforming candidates, and $5 qualifying contributions collected from participating candidates.

Daniel Ruiz II, deputy director of the Arizona Clean Elections Commission, said Boyer’s proposal perhaps may sound more aesthetically pleasing, but that it would essentially do the same thing as HCR 2023, by leaving just a shell of the Clean Elections structure remaining without any funding mechanism.

“The amount of money that we receive is such a small amount compared to the overall education budget,” Ruiz said.

For example, in 2013, the commission received a total of $9.3 million in revenues, compared with a total of about $13.8 billion spent on education in 2012, he said.

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