When Arizona voters approved the Citizens Clean Elections Act in 1998, the idea was to establish a campaign financing system that would allow for greater participation in politics by the average person and less control from special interests by providing public funding to state and legislative candidates who agree to follow “clean elections” guidelines.
Central to the law was its matching funds provision which would allow clean elections candidates to receive matching funds from the state — paid for by taxpayers — when privately funded opponents raised money above a certain threshold. For a state just emerging from the scandals of Gov. Fife Symington and AzScam, the notion of having “clean elections” was quite appealing.
But what sounded good on the ballot in 1998 has been riddled with problems ever since. The same process that makes elected office possible for folks who otherwise wouldn’t be heard allows obscure candidates who don’t have a prayer of winning to buy pricey items for their campaign, such as computers and cameras, with public money — and then keep those items even if they lose. Some critics say it has also resulted in a wacky state Legislature of people who probably shouldn’t even be in charge of running their own households, let alone a state of 6.5 million people and a budget of approximately $9 billion. This last session alone, state lawmakers gave us a litany of they-want-to-do-what? moments: a bill to force couples who want to divorce to stay married longer, legislation to exempt from federal regulation incandescent light bulbs manufactured in Arizona, a law that allows virtually anyone to carry a concealed gun even if they don’t have a permit. And none of that includes SB 1070, the new controversial immigration law that has drawn scorn and boycotts from across the country.
This year, about 130 legislative and state office candidates, including Gov. Jan Brewer, are running as clean elections candidates, and we are 10 weeks away from the Aug. 24 primary.
Enter the U.S. Supreme Court, which last week blocked the use of matching funds in Arizona’s clean elections law, throwing a major wrench into an election year that’s already well underway.
The ruling restored an injunction against the use of matching funds ordered earlier this year by U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver, a ruling that was overturned in May by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. After the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix think tank, asked the Supreme Court to intervene before Arizona could give clean elections candidates their first round of matching funds on June 22.
What this all boils down to is this: 130 candidates who decided to run under the requirements of the state’s 12-year-old clean elections law will not be getting money for their campaigns that they had been counting on, and it’s too late now for them to run as privately funded candidates.
In the governor’s race, it represents a big win for multi-millionaire Buz Mills and a big loss for Brewer, who asked the Arizona Clean Elections Commission last week to invoke a provision of the law allowing publicly-financed candidates to seek outside funds if the state doesn’t have the money to pay the matching funds. The commissioners, however, said that provision would not apply in this case.
How this will all end up is anyone’s guess. But there’s no question that it’s throwing this year’s elections into a complete tizzy. In the governor’s race, will Mills cruise to victory in the Republican primary over Brewer and state treasurer Dean Martin, who also is running as a clean elections candidate? If he does win the primary, will Mills — who, among other things, sent out fliers saying the state needs a “real man” as governor — go on to win it all? Or, will the prospect of Mills as governor cause more voters to cast ballots for a Democrat in the general election?
We’ll know in November.