Clean Elections Law Under Attack
Initiative would end practice of using tax money to fund campaigns
The plan is simple: Get rid of Arizona's publicly funded elections.
Put the money into the state coffers where it can be used to pay for education, health care or tax relief for middle-class families.
That's the crux of an initiative to end Arizona's successful yet controversial system of public campaign funding, known as Clean Elections. The essence of the argument is that no taxpayer money should go to politicians for political campaigns.
Nathan Sproul, who is quarterbacking the No Taxpayer Money for Politicians effort, said Clean Elections is using millions of taxpayer dollars that should go into the state's General Fund.
But candidates like Lydia Guzman, who is running for a state Senate seat in the GOP-bastion of the West Valley, believe the Clean Elections money is well spent. "How dare they try to get rid of Clean Elections!" said Guzman, a first-time candidate. "Without Clean Elections, it would be difficult to run and compete. This levels the playing field."
Supporters of the voter-approved law call the effort to overturn it misleading. Ending it, they say, would take away a popular avenue for ordinary citizens to run for state office without selling their homes or raiding their life savings.
They also say it would crush the benefits that publicly funded elections have brought: increased voter turnout, more competition and more minority political candidates. They point to the voter turnout in the 2002 general election, which jumped 10 percent over 1998.
The message of Sproul's group is selling because it taps into the most unpopular part of the election-funding scheme. The essence of the argument is that no taxpayer money should go to politicians for political campaigns.
The group, whose deep-pocket contributors read like a who's who of industry, will file more than 270,000 signatures in the next week, nearly 100,000 more than needed. The initiative for the Nov. 2 ballot would amend the state Constitution to ban the use of public money for political campaigns.
The campaign over Clean Elections could have far-reaching ramifications for Arizona. If the initiative wins, the landscape of the 2006 governor's race would be changed. For example, U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., a possible gubernatorial contender, could dial into a private fund-raising network that might give him an edge over Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat. Napolitano was Arizona's first Clean Elections governor, and the public system let her outspend the privately financed Matt Salmon by more than $1 million.
There are heavy hitters and big money on both sides of the battle. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Napolitano are backing the Keep It Clean campaign, which is trying to raise more than $2 million to keep publicly funded elections intact. Foundations and advocacy groups will finance more than $1 million of the Keep It Clean campaign.
Standing on the other side of the fight are Republican Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl; U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake of Mesa; Eric and Tim Crown, the founders of Insight Enterprises; Tucson auto dealer Jim Click; insurance mogul Jack Londen; and Ken Kendrick, a part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. They, and others, have raised more than $500,000. They plan to raise another $500,000 to get their message on TV and radio.
Sproul goes out of his way to avoid using the words "clean" and "elections" in the same sentence. Critics of the initiative say it doesn't mention that a voter-approved act would be ended. But Sproul says the demise of the system unquestionably would benefit the state.
"During the course of the last year, Governor Janet Napolitano has complained that there isn't enough money for all-day kindergarten or prescription drug benefits for seniors," Sproul said. "Having the extra money will allow her and the Legislature to do quite a few of the things they haven't had money to do."
Arizona and Maine are the only states with a statewide system where candidates can get public money to support their campaigns. But the Clean Elections idea is spreading. North Carolina has it for judges. Vermont uses a similar system for governor and lieutenant governor, and New Mexico has it for its Public Utilities Commission. New Jersey has just approved a pilot program for two of its swing legislative districts.
In Arizona, surcharges on civil and criminal fines account for 65 percent of the Clean Elections fund. The rest comes from a $5 state income tax checkoff and a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit for up to $500. So far, the system has distributed nearly $15 million to hundreds of candidates.
The idea is to have candidates forgo private contributions and instead collect piles of $5 donations and get matching funds.
Key to success
The key to the success of the initiative could come down to how it is worded on the ballot. Secretary of State Jan Brewer and the Attorney General's Office must review and approve the final wording.
Barb Lubin, executive director of the Clean Elections Institute, said the law has let more people participate in politics.
"Participating candidates have time to actually campaign and meet with voters to hear of their concerns, rather than spending their time fund-raising with wealthy donors who may not even live in their district or Arizona," Lubin said.
Wes Gullett, a top adviser to former Republican Gov. Fife Symington, said Clean Elections has knocked down barriers to political participation.
"Who would you rather have public elected leaders answer to, the people who fund their campaigns with $5 or the special interests that run their campaigns?" asked Gullett, who chairs Keep It Clean.
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