The End of Taxpayer Funded Campaigns in Arizona?

Arizona’s system of taxpayer financed campaigns may have already seen its last election.  The Arizona Capitol Times reported Friday that the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-3 to advance SCR1025, a referendum that would allow Arizonans to vote to end the state’s decade-long failed experiment with publicly-funded campaigns.

Arizona’s current system of allowing candidates to choose to have the taxpayers foot their campaign bills was only narrowly enacted by ballot initiative in 1998, lacking any organized opposition at the time.

Under Arizona’s so-called “Clean Elections Act,” candidates who choose to “participate” in the public funding program, and who raise a minimum number of small dollar qualifying donations, are then entitled to a lump sum of campaign money bestowed by the state’s Citizens Clean Elections Commission, so long as the “participating” candidates agree to be a part of public debates and limit their campaign expenditures.  But those expenditure limits are little more than an illusion because, if a non-participating opponent (or any independent group) outspends the taxpayer financed candidate, then each opposing “participating” candidate receives dollar-for-dollar matching funds from — you guessed it — the taxpayers.

The matching funds provisions are currently being constitutionally challenged in federal district court in the case of McComish v. Bennett.  And, just today, CCP filed a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that the matching funds provisions are unconstitutional since they penalize non-participating candidates and their supporters for exercising their First Amendment rights to spend unlimited amounts of lawfully raised and constitutionally protected campaign contributions.  Indeed, this was the constitutional rule established by the U.S. Supreme Court just a year ago when it struck down the federal Millionaire’s Amendment in the case of Davis v Federal Election Commission.

CCP is optimistic that the federal court in Phoenix will get this case right and declare the matching funds provisions unconstitutional because, in two prior rulings just before last fall’s elections, Judge Roslyn Silver more than suggested that, once the then impending elections were over, she would likely strike down that part of Arizona’s taxpayer financing law.

Arizona lawmakers are also clearly convinced that the matching funds provisions will be found unconstitutional. In addition to the referendum that would scrap Arizona’s taxpayer financed campaigns entirely, other legislation has been proposed that would eliminate just the matching funds — at least for the 2010 election cycle.  The Arizona Capitol Times noted:

“H2603, a proposal sponsored by Rep. Rich Crandall, a Republican from Mesa, and a handful of GOP and Democrat lawmakers, seeks to eliminate the Citizens Clean Elections Commission’s matching funds system, which is also facing a threat in the courts.”

“Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat and co-sponsor the bill, said the litigation is needed to provide certainty during the 2010 election cycle because the matching-funds provision is under serious threat by litigation pushed by the Goldwater Institute.”

“The goal of H2603, Campbell said, is to sufficiently raise the initial disbursements given to publicly funded candidates for primary and general election cycles to prepare for a future without matching funds.”

“‘This bill hopefully will take away the doubts of the next election cycle, and whatever the court decides, the court decides,’ Campbell said. ‘What we’re trying to do right now is have something in place for next year so candidates aren’t waiting until next June for a court decision and figuring out how they’re going to run for office.'”

CCP applauds the efforts of the legislators who are working to repeal the most egregiously unconstitutional provisions of what should be known as Arizona’s “Dirty Elections Act.”  But we hope that abolishing matching funds is only the first step, and that the taxpayers of Arizona get the chance to decide in 2010 to stop sending their money to fund the campaigns of the politicians who can’t stop spending it.