Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Arizona Legislature can put last stake in Clean Elections’ heart with HB2593

Is Clean Elections dead in Arizona? Not yet, but if a bill, HB2593, currently hung up in the Legislature passes, Clean Elections will be as good as dead.

And good riddance.

Voter-approved Clean Elections was supposed to take the “dirty” money out of state politics by giving average Joes and Janes thousands of public dollars to run for office without having to go begging to big-money interests such as home builders, road builders, unions and the like.

The money mostly comes from a 10 percent surcharge on traffic tickets and lesser amounts from a tax credit and dinky $5 donations necessary to qualify for the easy money.

This supposedly virtuous money was intended to create a virtuous Legislature that had only the “people’s” interests at heart rather than the interests of all those industries who employed most of those people.

It never worked out that way. For many reasons – redistricting and population growth primarily – Arizona in the last decade ended up with numerous legislative districts overloaded with either Republicans or Democrats.

It created numerous safe districts for many Republicans and a few Democrats. Fringe candidates, who under the old system never would have raised enough money to be relevant, now had thousands of dollars to spend and their messages resonated with disaffected party members who tended to turn out in higher numbers than their not-quite-as-wild-eyed party brethren in all-important primary elections.

As a result, many of the Republicans elected to the state Legislature weren’t just conservative, but really, really conservative. And many of the handful of legislative Democrats weren’t just liberal, but really, really liberal.

But the days of crackpot legislators may be numbered. Two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past few years have gutted Clean Elections causing its nefarious influence over the state’s politics to wane.

One removed the matching funds provision of the law that allowed “Clean” candidates to get more money whenever a traditional candidate raised more money than the Clean Elections funding cap allowed. And the other was the notorious Citizens United ruling, which uncapped the money-genie bottle by allowing unlimited issue advocacy spending.

The rise of dark money (so called because most states, including Arizona, have failed to pass adequate disclosure rules to reveal who’s donating the money to issue advocacy organizations) has spooked state politicians. HB2593 raises the caps on campaign contributions Arizonans are allowed to make to political candidates. The bill is a defense against dark money and will allow candidates to raise considerably more money than they were able to in the era before Clean Elections.

If it passes, Clean Elections is effectively dead. Only the safest of safe-district legislators would use it. Other candidates, whether facing a tough internecine primary fight, or a tough general election battle, would be foolish to take Clean money and its funding caps when their opponents could raise gobs more money and benefit from supposed independent (wink, wink) dark money campaigns.

Because voters OK’d Clean Elections, the program won’t be all dead (as Miracle Max might say) until voters officially repeal it in some future election.

The only reason to do that if HB2593 passes would be to eliminate the 10 percent traffic ticket surcharge. Since excess Clean money is swept into the state’s general fund, it’s unlikely the Legislature will put Clean Elections repeal on the ballot any time soon.

The bill has passed the House but Senate President Andy Biggs is sitting on it in his Senate Rules committee. He should let it come to a vote. If it passes, Arizona can finally put its failed campaign finance experiment and bastion of crackpottery in its well-deserved grave.

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