Nation Watching Arizona's Battle Over Clean Elections

By Chip Scutari, The Arizona Republic

Starting today, Arizona officially becomes America's battleground over public money in state politics.

The nation will be watching the fight over the future of Arizona's popular yet controversial system of publicly funding politicians' campaigns. Both sides will spend up to $3 million to kill or keep the system known as Clean Elections that has sparked similar efforts in dozens of states.

An initiative by a group called No Taxpayer Money for Politicians will try to change the state Constitution by banning the use of public money for political races. The group is expected to file 275,000 signatures this morning at the Secretary of State's Office, substantially more than the 184,000 necessary to qualify for the Nov. 2 ballot.

The main objection to Clean Elections is that it relies on public money to pay for political campaigns. Nathan Sproul, who is coordinating the initiative, scoffed at those who don't think that Clean Elections is funded with taxpayer money.

"Tell that to the taxpayer who has to write the check," Sproul said.

But those who support Clean Elections disagree, saying that public donations are optional and that the defeat of the law could be a blow to democracy. Arizona became the second state in the nation after Maine to adopt the approach when voters approved the law in 1998.

"There are people who are sick and tired of big-money politics and see Arizona as a hope for democracy. People around the country see Arizona as a model for other states where ordinary people can still have a say in politics," said Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign-finance reform group. "Displaced political donors like the old system when their money counted a lot more."

Nyhart and others tout Arizona's Clean Elections law, which lets candidates collect large numbers of private $5 donations to qualify for public campaign money, as a national model of election reform. Supporters say it has improved voter turnout since 1998, while tripling the number of minorities who have run for office.

More than 36 states are trying to adopt a version of Clean Elections, while nearly 20 of those states have legislation in the works. A group in West Virginia, for instance, wants to pass the law so it can help loosen what it calls the coal industry's grip on that state's Legislature.

The campaign is a true test case for the country. It's making national news. Syndicated columnists such as Molly Ivins of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post have written glowing columns about Arizona's law. Dionne wrote that Clean Elections has "given new people a chance to enter politics without mortgaging their houses or their souls."

Dennis Burke, former director of Arizona Common Cause who worked on the Clean Elections campaign in 1998, said it has helped "cut the strings of obligation."

"It was a hard sell to get it passed in Arizona," said Burke, who's working on a U.S. Senate race in New England. "It's going to be a hard sell to keep it. There are so many states counting on Arizona. It would be a huge step backward and a shame for the rest of the country."

In 1998, critics dismissed the Clean Elections movement as a welfare act for politicians, but they never launched a formal campaign to defeat it. Clean Elections narrowly passed. That lackadaisical effort isn't being repeated. Clean Election critics are raising big bucks to get rid of it. They are confident that their "no taxpayer" sound bite will sway voters.

Eric Crown, who turned a $2,000 advance on his credit card into a billion-dollar computer company called Insight Enterprises, is heading the effort. He said public money should be spent on things like education instead of politicians.

"I don't believe this is a more democratic system," Crown told The Republic. "This is bad for democracy. We have to stop it from spreading. I'm glad we can stop it right here in Arizona."

Gov. Janet Napolitano, the nation's first governor elected after running a Clean Elections campaign, doesn't agree with Crown.

"First of all, the taxpayer money is a bit of a canard," Napolitano said. "It's not like your income-tax money is going into the Clean Elections fund. Income-tax money is going for schools and health care and prisons.

"I think that other states are actually looking to adopt the Arizona model. So it's ironic that we would, in effect, repeal it this election. I join with others, including Senator (John) McCain, to say, 'Why go backwards?' "

Surcharges on civil and criminal fines account for 65 percent of the Clean Elections fund. Opponents of the law say no matter what the surcharges are called, they are taxes.

The rest comes from a voluntary $5 state income-tax checkoff and a dollar-for-dollar income-tax credit for up to $500. Proponents of Clean Elections note that Arizonans have the option of contributing, so they aren't paying an extra income tax.

Keep It Clean, which is trying to preserve Clean Elections, is being pushed by a coalition of groups that are usually last in line when it comes to gaining favor at the Legislature. Supporters include the Sierra Club, League of Women Voters and AARP. But Keep It Clean has some powerful out-of-state financial friends. The Proteus Fund Inc., a Massachusetts project that provides funds for state-based campaign-finance reform, will be contributing.

The Public Campaign Action Fund, which donated $333,000 in 1998, is now doing a national $5 donation campaign. The fund has raised nearly $24,000 from people in 50 states over the past month.

Clean Elections critics say the law hasn't done what it promised.

Supporters said it would loosen the lobbyists' grip on the political system by giving outsiders a new way to compete against special interests. But lobbyists still help politicians run their campaigns by collecting $5 contributions. And lobbyists still help write many bills at the Capitol.

Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Sierra Club, has been a vigorous defender of Clean Elections and will fight in November to keep it around.

Bahr said public campaign funding has not been a "magic bullet" reform, but it has increased competition in political races and encouraged less wealthy candidates to run.

"Look at the mayoral election for Phoenix and City Council elections, the price is going way up and that shuts a lot of people out," Bahr said.

"I talk to average people, and they don't think about running for those offices because of the cost. But average people are actually considering running for the Legislature, and I think that's what we want."


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