The failure of lawmakers to patch a problem in the public financing system could effectively force candidates next year to go back to running for office the way they did years ago: taking money from special interests and other private sources.
Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, could not marshal the necessary votes on the last night of the session for his legislation designed to overcome an anticipated federal court ruling crippling a key provision of the program. So the bill died, leaving the law on the books as it is.
Only thing is, a federal judge has concluded, at least preliminarily, that a key provision of that law is unconstitutional. Unless that is fixed - and soon - that may make the law unworkable for many who plan to campaign for next year's election.
But Paton said that, at least for now, he has no intention of asking Gov. Jan Brewer to add the issue of fixing the system on the agenda for the special session set to begin Monday.
The 1998 voter-approved law sets up a voluntary system of public financing for those who want to run for statewide and legislative office.
Candidates who can get the required number of $5 donations - designed to show a level of public support - get public funds to run their campaigns. In exchange, they agree not to take money from outside sources.
So a candidate for governor would get $707,447 for next year's primary, and an additional more than $1 million for the general election. Legislative candidates are entitled to $14,319 for their primaries and $21,479 for the general.
The law also allows candidates to get more if their privately financed foes exceed that spending, up to three times the original allocation.
In a preliminary ruling last year, though, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver said the matching fund provision is unconstitutional. She agreed with privately financed candidates who argued that the system can be "manipulated" by their publicly financed foes - called "participating candidates" in the law - to actually give them a financial advantage.
Silver has not yet issued a final ruling. And Todd Lang, director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said it is still possible she could be convinced to change her mind.
But even Lang acknowledged that whatever she does leaves candidates uncertain. More to the point, any candidate who agrees to accept public funds - a decision that cannot be reversed once chosen - runs the risk of being seriously outspent by an opponent, with no possibility of catching up.
And that, Lang said, could convince some candidates to take the safer course of asking private sources and special interests to finance their campaigns.
"Anytime you're considering a run, you have to consider all the possibilities," Lang said.
"I think there will be some people who do decide not to take that risk," he said. "So we will lose a few participating candidates."
In the last election, 30 out of 51 candidates for the state Senate took public funding; the figure was 72 out of 103 in the House.
The solution Paton pushed would give publicly funded candidates more money upfront. They would not qualify for more later when their privately financed foes outspent them. Gubernatorial hopefuls would get more than $1.4 million for a primary and more than $2 million for a general election race. Legislative candidates would qualify for $21,478 in the primary and more than $32,000 for the general.
But the bill also had a sweetener for those who choose to take private dollars, increasing the amount they could accept.
Now, statewide candidates can take only $840 from any one person, with a maximum of $83,448 from political action committees. Paton's legislation would have doubled that, potentially making fundraising easier.
Similarly, legislative candidates now limited to $410 from an individual and $13,464 from all PACs combined would be able to get $615 from donors with the PAC cap at $26,978.
The bill also scrapped current law that limits the total any one person can contribute to all candidates to $5,610 in any one year.
But Paton ran into trouble, largely from fellow Senate Republicans who do not like public financing and see no reason to fix it. His measure came up short of the necessary votes for approval.
Paton actually is in agreement with those foes, at least philosophically. In fact, he sponsored a measure to ask voters next year to eliminate all public funding for future elections.
That proposal failed. But Paton said that plan will come back next session.
Paton said he agreed to sponsor this fix only because candidates for the 2010 race needed some certainty about how to finance their campaigns.
That is also the logic of the Arizona Republican Party, which lobbied, unsuccessfully, for passage of the proposal. "We think it's critical to have certainty going into the 2010 election," said Brett Mecum, the party's executive director.