Saying the proposal is legally flawed, supporters of public financing of elections filed suit Friday to block a public vote to kill the system.
In legal papers filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, attorney Paul Eckstein said the proposed constitutional amendment is billed as barring the government from providing public subsidies to candidates for public office. But he said the language approved last month by lawmakers for the 2012 ballot would constitutionally bar government agencies from collecting or spending public funds for "campaign support,'' a phrase that is not defined.
The problem with that, Eckstein said, is it could be interpreted as barring not only direct contributions to a candidate's race but also other functions of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, including its sponsorship of debates and voter education. And that, he said, means the proposal would do two different things, violating a requirement that constitutional amendments address only a single subject.
If the courts don't buy that argument, Eckstein has a backup.
The ballot proposal, if approved, would affect not only the state's public financing system of election, approved by voters in 1998. It also would kill an even older program in the city of Tucson where candidates who agree to limit what they collect from private donors can get matching public dollars.
Eckstein pointed out the measure, if approved, would "sweep'' any leftover funds set aside for candidate financing into the state treasury. That would cover not only cash in the state Clean Elections fund but also city tax dollars.
"This question presents a subject that should be decided by voters separately,'' he argued.
Former state Sen. Jonathan Paton, who is chairing the repeal effort, said the lawsuit is in some ways not a surprise.
"It sounds pretty obvious they don't want to face us in November on the ballot because they know they're going to lose,'' he said. Paton said he is consulting with campaign attorneys and feels "pretty confident'' that the challenge will fail.
The 1998 law allows -- but does not require -- candidates for statewide and legislative office to get public dollars if they agree not to take outside money. The amount allocated for each campaign is based on the office sought.
Most of the cash comes from a 10 percent surcharge on civil, criminal and traffic fines. But the state also provides tax credits for donations.
It was narrowly approved by voters despite efforts by elements of the business community, which has traditionally been a source of campaign donations, to defeat it.
Much of what makes the repeal effort subject to legal challenge is that the legislators who crafted the ballot measure purposely chose not to try to repeal the 1998 law. Such a ballot measure would be legal.
But many lawmakers conceded that voters, confronted with the question of eliminating the "Clean Elections'' program, would vote "no.''
Instead, they decided to leave the law intact, but instead propose a constitutional amendment barring the use of public funds for campaigns, effectively voiding the law without actually asking voters to repeal it.
In doing that, however, they also put the question of Tucson's public financing system into play. And they had to spell out how any leftover dollars would be spent, opening the door to a legal challenge.
This is not the first time supporters of public funding have sought to short-circuit a repeal effort.
A similar proposal was knocked off the ballot in 2004. Judges concluded that measure actually had two separate issues -- repeal of public funding and halting the other functions of the Clean Elections Commission like candidate debates -- which made it an unconstitutional question to send to voters.
Plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit include current elected officials who say they intend to run in the future with public funds, whether under the state program or the Tucson system, as well as potential future candidates.