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Judge refuses to cut off matching funds

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

PHOENIX – A judge on Tuesday refused to cut off supplemental money provided to publicly funded Arizona election candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents or targeted by independent groups.

The brief order by U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver likely means that the flow of “matching funds” to candidates running in legislative and Corporation Commission races this year won’t be interrupted before the Nov. 4 general election.

Candidates who take part in the “Clean Elections” campaign funding system start with base funding allotments for their campaigns. Those candidates also get matching funds under triggers pulled either by opponents’ spending in the primary election or their fundraising in the general election. Independent expenditures also can trigger matching funds.

Dozens of Arizona legislative candidates and a handful of Corporation Commission candidates running in the general election with public funding could receive matching funds. At least 22 legislative candidates already have.

Some privately financed Republican legislative candidates and other critics of Arizona’s public campaign financing system contend that matching funds are unconstitutional. They argue that the provision infringes on free speech rights by chilling private fundraising that could trigger matching funds for opponents.

Supporters of public campaign funding contend matching funds are a key element of an overall system designed to reduce corrupting influences of private contributions and said changing the system so close to the Nov. 4 general election would be impracticable and unfair.

Funding for the public financing system mainly comes from surcharges on civil penalties and criminal fines, voluntary tax checkoffs and contributions. Other money comes from fines assessed on candidates who violate the rules and $5 citizen contributions candidates solicit to qualify.

Goldwater Institute attorney Nick Dranias, representing some of the candidates and groups challenging the supplemental funding, declined to rule out a possible appeal until Silver issues a ruling to explain her reasoning.

A lawyer for other challengers also said an appeal is a possibility depending on Silver’s explanation but said it was an “uphill battle” to try to persuade Silver to take that step.

“Judges are understandably nervous about being seen as doing anything that might influence the outcome of an election,” said attorney William Maurer of the Institute for Justice.

An advocate for public campaign funding welcomed Silver’s order and agreed that the case now appears headed for trial.

“It’s certainly what we wanted – not to interrupt things in the middle of the election,” said Eric Ehst, Clean Elections Institute executive director.

Even if there is a last-minute appeal to try again to block matching funds this year, “I would be very surprised if an appellate court would take it up at this point just because of the timing issues,” Ehst said.

Maurer said the legality of matching funds likely will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. A North Carolina case submitted to the high court raises the matching funds issue.

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