Supporters of the program say it allows candidates to run for office without groveling for campaign funds, so they're no longer beholden to powerful lobbyists and special interests once elected. Critics gripe that public dollars shouldn't be paying for junk mail, robo-calls and yard signs, or complain that the program encourages fringe candidates on the right and left to run for office, further polarizing the Legislature.
But it appears that nearly all of the members of the House of Representatives agree the program needs some changes. A bill to reform the Clean Elections program sailed through the House of Representatives last week, passing on a 57-0 vote.
Rep. Michele Reagan, the Scottsdale Republican who has shepherded House Bill 2690 through the House, is among those who don't like the publicly funded campaign program.
"I make no bones about the fact that I'm not a fan of Clean Elections," says Reagan, who notes that previous efforts to reform Clean Elections have met with failure, because some of its critics hoped that if the system had problems, it would make it easier to get rid of it in the future.
"But if it's not going to go away, we have a duty to fix it," Reagan says. "There are a lot of little loopholes and tweaks that can be fixed legislatively."
The Citizens Clean Elections Commission, which oversees the program, supports the reform package.
"We're excited to see it move forward," says Michael Becker, the commission's voter education manager.
Among the key changes: an increase in the amount of money that statewide candidates receive; a boost in the amount that traditionally funded lawmakers can take from both individuals and political-action committees; and a reduction in some reporting requirements.
Candidates--and potential candidates--have frequently complained that Clean Elections doesn't provide them with enough money to run viable statewide campaigns.
Under the current rules, candidates qualify for public funding by collecting a minimum number of $5 contributions. But more than half of the statewide candidates end up with less than $48,000 to run a primary campaign--which doesn't add up to much when you're reaching out to as many as 1 million Republicans or 860,000 Democrats, plus more than 695,000 independents now eligible to vote in primaries.
"You are given the equivalent of 2 cents per voter," Reagan says. "Now, how are you supposed to use the system and reach everyone in the state with 2 cents?"
Reagan says the low spending limits turn Clean Elections into an incumbent protection act, because elected officials typically have a significant name ID advantage over challengers.
While the bill still needs technical tweaks in the Senate, Reagan hopes it will ultimately increase the check given to gubernatorial candidates by 30 percent and to other statewide candidates by 60 percent.
Candidates who bypass the Clean Elections program get something out of the package, too, which helps explain the widespread support. Traditional campaigners would be able to take as much as $11,945 from PACs, up from the current limit of $7,568. They'd also be allowed to take as much as $370 from individuals, up from the current $296 limit.
In addition, the legislation lowers the matching funds available to participating candidates if nonparticipating candidates break certain spending or contribution thresholds. Under the current rules, Clean Election candidates get a dollar-for-dollar match; the proposed law would reduce that to 95 cents for every dollar, to compensate for expenses that traditional candidates run up in the fundraising process.
Finally, the bill would also reduce some reporting requirements, particularly in races where none of the candidates use the Clean Elections program, and make other technical tweaks.
Because the Clean Elections program was created by a proposition, the package needs a three-fourths vote in both chambers to become law--and it must also further the voters' intent, or it will have to go back to the ballot. Reagan remains worried that senators may amend the bill in such a way to force a public vote.
"This is tightly written so that nothing in there would trigger having to go the ballot," Reagan says. "At the end of the day, we're furthering the voters' will. We're making the Clean Elections system work better. Whether you're a Democrat or Republican or clean or traditional, this bill will make it more reasonable and more fair."