Arizona taxpayers could end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Senate President Russell Peace keep his office.
And it will not matter whether he wins or loses the recall election.
A little-known provision in the Arizona Constitution requires the Legislature to enact the laws necessary to run an election seeking the ouster of an elected official. And that includes “provision for payment by the public treasury of the reasonable special election campaign expenses of such officer.”
But state Elections Director Amy Bjelland said the provision is not self-enacting. She said it would require an actual vote by lawmakers.
What that means, she said, is that once the election is over legislators will get to decide whether they want to pick up the tab for Pearce’s expenses.
Pearce said Tuesday he was unaware of the provision until being told about it by Capitol Media Service. And the Senate president said that, in general, he is opposed to using public funds for elections.
He said, though, his particular case should be an exception.
“It’s not something I created or caused,” he said.
Pearce said it would be one thing if voters were seeking to oust him because of some improper behavior, referring to incidents involving members of Congress who have been linked to sex scandals unrelated to their jobs.
“In my case, simply, they don’t like what I’ve accomplished,” he said. Pearce said if that is the case, voters will have a chance next year, at the regular election, to choose someone else.
“I suspect why it’s there (in the Constitution) is it’s overturning a valid election, a minority in most cases overturning the voters’ will,” he said. It takes the signatures of 25 percent of those who voted in the last regular election to force a recall.
“It is tough,’’ he said. “You’ve got to raise money.”
Pearce said there already has been a lot of money spent. Much of that has been for supporters to hire attorney Lisa Hauser who is challenging the sufficiency of the recall petitions in a bid to short-circuit the election. Earlier this week she asked the Arizona Supreme Court to overturn a ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Hugh Hegyi who concluded that recall organizers had acted within the law and the scheduled Nov. 8 election can proceed. Late Tuesday, however, the justices said the case must first be heard by the intermediate state Court of Appeals, a move that will delay the final resolution of the issue.
Pearce said while Hauser continues seeking to have the election cancelled, he keeps trying to raise money.
“There have been a couple of letters that have gone out” seeking cash, he said, one from Gov. Jan Brewer and one from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
One question that lawmakers would have to decide is how much is “reasonable.”
“In my opinion, it’s whatever it takes to defend yourself or defend the office,” Pearce said.
Pearce raised nearly $68,000 for his 2010 campaign, though he reported spending less than half that much.
But the cost of this election is bound to be much higher — and not only because of the legal bills Hauser is incurring. There already are several challengers in the race, including Mesa charter school executive Jerry Lewis, who said he will be raising private cash for the race.
John Giles, spokesman for the Lewis campaign, declined to say how much already has been raised.
“We’ve been gratified by an outpouring of support,” he said. “We’re confident we’ll have enough money to wage a credible campaign.”
Giles would not put a specific number to that but acknowledged it could take close to $100,000 to defeat Pearce. He said, though, that Lewis expects to be outspent by the incumbent.
The last time anyone looked at the constitutional provision was in 1988 when then-Gov. Evan Mecham was the subject of a recall election. Bob Corbin, who looked at the issue then as attorney general, said it gives no specific guidance on what is reasonable, specifically leaving the “method, timing and calculation of payment to the discretion of the Legislature.”
Corbin pointed out, though, that there was at one time an actual law on the books spelling out how much would be paid. That law, enacted in 1913 but repealed in 1973, said legislators who face recall are entitled to $200.
The Mecham recall never took place, however, with the governor being impeached by the House, convicted by the Senate and removed from office.
Any of Pearce’s expenses would be on top of the cost of running the special election, with the tab for that estimated at more than $150,000.
The other significant legal question is what happens if the Legislature pays Pearce’s expenses but he already had raised the money.
Pearce pointed out that lawmakers are entitled to bank unused campaign contributions from one election to another. He said that would mean anything he collected for the recall but not needed could then be set aside for a 2012 race.