Arizona's grand experiment in public campaign financing will face its first major test since voters narrowly approved the Clean Elections Act in 1998.
Although the program, which provides public dollars to qualifying candidates, was in place during the 2000 election cycle, a lawsuit over the law's future left many candidates who might have tapped it for campaign funds waiting to see what would happen. Besides, only legislative seats (and a couple of Corporation Commission posts) were up that year; this year, nearly all the statewide officials will also be up for grabs.
Supporters of the law say providing public dollars will decrease the influence of special interests that traditionally fund campaigns. Critics, who argue the public money could be for better purposes than, as one legislative candidate put it in 2000, "junk mail and yard signs," have tried without much success to disable the program through the courts.
The most recent lawsuit against Clean Elections, filed by the Phoenix chapter of the Institute for Justice, was a bit of a win, with Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Colleen McNally ruling that requiring a $100 registration fee from legislative lobbyists to fund the program was unconstitutional. But the larger issue of using surcharges on criminal charges, which provides the lion's share of revenue for Clean Elections, passed constitutional muster. (Attorneys for the Institute for Justice have said they'll appeal McNally's decision.)
Meanwhile, conservatives at the Goldwater Institute have declared the Clean Elections program irrelevant, releasing a study showing no meaningful difference between how publicly funded and privately funded lawmakers voted.
But that conclusion seems rather premature, given that it was reached by reviewing voting patterns in the single legislative session since Clean Elections was instituted and fails to take into account the fact that many candidates who might have used public funds chose to collect private contributions because the law was facing a legal challenge as the filing deadline approached in 2000.
Clean Elections supporters were touting their own poll last month, which they said demonstrated for the first time that a plurality of voters would support publicly funded candidates "if all other things were equal."
But there's an obvious flaw there, too. In political campaigns, all other things are rarely equal between the candidates. In fact, the whole point of having political campaigns is to allow voters to choose among differing perspectives.
The more intriguing element of that poll showed that only one out of four voters is even aware there's a program providing public funds for candidates.
For the record, here's how the system works:
Candidates for the Arizona Legislature and statewide offices are eligible for public campaign funds ranging from $26,970 to $1,024,880, depending on the office. The system is voluntary, but candidates who don't participate see the former maximum individual contribution of $320 trimmed by 20 percent, to $256.
At the low end of the scale, statehouse candidates are eligible for $10,790 for the primary election and an additional $16,180 for the general election; at the high end, gubernatorial candidates are eligible for $409,950 for the primary and an additional $614,930 for the general election.
To qualify for public funding, candidates have to collect a minimum number of $5 contributions. Legislative candidates must collect at least 200 contributions from within their district; gubernatorial candidates must collect at least 4,000 contributions statewide.
If candidates who aren't participating in the Clean Elections program break the primary or general spending limits, their Clean Elections opponents are eligible for matching funds up to three times the standard spending limit.
At this point, the jury remains out on Clean Elections. This year will prove a better test than 2000, but it could take several more cycles before the program's success or failure can be adequately judged.
For more information on the Clean Elections program, visit www.ccec.state.az.us/ccecscr/home.asp.