Lawsuit Seeks to Stop Public Financing of Elections

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Foes of the state's public financing system of elections are mounting a new challenge today to the 6-year-old law.

The Institute for Justice wants a federal judge to void provisions in the voter-approved law which gives additional cash to publicly funded candidates when their privately financed foes raise additional cash. Frank Conti, the institute's Arizona director, said that runs afoul of prior federal court rulings which preclude the state from equalizing funding for candidates.

Today's lawsuit is being filed on behalf of several Republicans, including former gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon who, in a privately financed race, lost to Democrat Janet Napolitano who took public funds.

The new lawsuit also challenges provisions in the law which give additional money to publicly financed candidate when independent groups take out ads attacking them or supportive of their privately funded foes. Yet independent expenditures made on behalf of the publicly funded candidate are not considered.

Tim Hogan who represents the Clean Elections Institute, a privately funded group which supports public financing of elections, said the lawsuit has no merit.

He said courts have upheld public financing systems -- even with matching funding provisions -- as long as they do not coerce candidates to accept taxpayer dollars. Hogan said the fact that people continue to run for office with private funds proves the system is not punitive.

Hogan also pointed out that a series of prior challenges to the Clean Elections Act, also filed by the Institute for Justice, have been rejected, twice by the state Supreme Court and once by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Conti said this lawsuit is different.

The 1998 law sets up a system of voluntary public financing for candidates for statewide and legislative offices. Those who gather the requisite number of $5 donations -- an indication of public support -- are entitled to set amounts of public financing, dependent on the office sought.

Two years ago, in the race for governor, participating candidates like Napolitano were entitled to $409,950 for the primary and $614,930 for the general election. But Napolitano ended up getting an additional $1.2 million based on money either given directly to Salmon's campaign or spent by others to get him elected.

For example, Conti said the state Democratic Party paid for TV commercial attacking Salmon. The Republican Party responded with a $350,000 campaign of its own, he said.

Conti said Napolitano got an additional $350,000, with no offset for what he said was the $1 million spent on her behalf by the Democrats.

Similarly, he said, a Salmon fundraiser by President Bush raised $750,000 but netted only about $500,000 after costs. Yet the state gave $750,000 to Napolitano and an equal amount to independent Richard Mahoney who also was taking public funds.

Hogan said all the candidates knew the rules when they entered the race and yet many of them still chose to accept private donations.

The lawsuit comes at the same time as foes of the Clean Elections Act are working on an initiative drive to convince voters to halt public funding of the system, a move which, if successful, effectively would repeal the law. Backers of that measure say they have about 124,000 of the get 183,197 valid signatures they need by July 1 to put the issue on the November ballot

See the article on Arizona Daily Sun website

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