The state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that political candidates can accept much larger sums of money from donors.
In a brief order, the justices said the Republican-controlled Legislature was within its legal right to decide that contenders both statewide and legislative office can take up to $4,000 from individuals and political action committees. The current limit is $440 for legislative candidates and $912 for those seeking statewide office.
Chief Justice Rebecca Berch, who signed the order, did not explain why she and her colleagues rejected arguments by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission that the old limits, having been put in place by voters, could not be altered without either taking the issue back to the ballot or with a three-fourths vote of the House and Senate. She promised a detailed ruling sometime in the future.
It was clear from the grilling that Berch and her colleagues had given Joe Kanefield, the commission's lawyer, just hours earlier that they were skeptical of his arguments that voters intended to tie the hands of the Legislature.
Tuesday's ruling could sharply alter the future of political campaigns in Arizona.
If nothing else, it means that candidates who run with private dollars will be able to raise a lot more money from donors. At the same time, though, the funding available for publicly financed candidates will remain the same.
That raises the question of whether fewer candidates will opt for public funding.
“Certainly there will be some candidates that figure the limits allow them to be financed by only a few people in a living room and it's easier to get that than run 'clean,” said Louis Hoffman, the commission's chairman. Hoffman said he expects that some candidates will continue to prefer public funding.
The fight surrounds the 1998 initiative setting up that optional public financing system. It provides set funding for candidates who get a certain number of $5 donations but agree not to use private or special interest dollars.
That same law also said that the statutory limits in place on how much privately financed candidates could take from donors would be reduced by 20 percent.
Kanefield said that means voters froze in place those 1998 limits, subject only to inflationary adjustments. He said it put in place a hard and fast cap on how much those who still want to run with private funds can accept from individuals and political action committees.
He said it makes a vote earlier this year by the Republican-controlled Legislature to sharply increase those donation limits illegal.
But attorney Mike Liburdi who represents Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin, pointed out that 1998 initiative does not enact specific dollar caps. Instead, it says that whatever donation limits that were in the law for privately financed candidates would be reduced by 20 percent. Liburdi said that allows legislators to set the limits wherever they want, subject only to that 20 percent reduction.
Kanefield, however, urged the justices to read that as freezing the amount at 80 percent of what it was in 1998.
Justice Robert Brutinel said there's a big problem with Kanefield's argument. He said it would have been one thing had drafters of the initiative put in specific dollar limits. And Brutinel said they did that elsewhere in the measure.
“But they didn't do that,” he said. “Instead they came up with what looks like a formula.”
Kanefield conceded that Brutinel's suggested verbiage might have been clearer, but he urged the justices to nevertheless reject what lawmakers did, saying that's not what voters intended.
“We've got to cut the voters a break here,” Kanefield said.
“It's clear what they were trying to do,” he continued. “They could have done it differently. But they did it this way.”
Tuesday's ruling does more than increase how much candidates can take from individuals and PACs. It also upholds another provision of the law which eliminated the cap of $14,688 on how much candidates can take from all PACs every election cycle.
The legislation also scrapped the limit of $6,390 on how much any individual or PAC can give to all candidates in any year.
Kanefield had told the justices that one reason voters approved the 1998 measure was to limit the influence of money on politicians. He said that is why it is important to keep lower limits in place.
Tuesday's ruling wipes out the last chance by commission to rein in campaign contributions — at least through the courts. But Hoffman said there may be other options.
One is taking the issue back to voters, this time with a better-worded initiative that has clear dollar limits on how much candidates can accept — and one that, as Hoffman explains it, would prevent another “end-run around the Clean Elections Act.”
He said, though, a compromise might be possible with the very Republican legislators who approved the higher campaign finance limits in the first place.
That, however, may be hard to achieve.
Biggs has contended that lawmakers had to increase contribution limits following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling which opened the door to outside groups spending unlimited dollars trying to influence elections. He said the current limits have resulted in candidates having little influence in their own campaigns.
And going back to the old limits would provoke a different fight. Liburdi contends those figures are so low as to be an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment rights of both donors and candidates.