- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

Arizona voters could sway the future of publicly funded campaigns in November when voters will likely decide whether to nullify the Clean Elections Act, the landmark 1998 measure that provides state money for political candidates.

The act’s opposition, called No Taxpayer Money for Politicians, filed 275,100 signatures last week, about 100,000 more than required, on behalf of a proposed state constitutional amendment that would effectively shut down the Clean Elections Act by eliminating its public funding.

The race is expected to be watched nationwide by states considering their own versions of the act. Only Maine and Arizona have systems to fund only state races with public money.

Opponents say that the measure, despite its name, has muddied the election process since voters approved it by a razor-thin margin in 1998. The result, they said, has been a boondoggle for political consultants trying to tap into the state’s deep pockets.

“It’s not clean elections — it’s anything but clean,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, an early opponent of the act. “The Clean Elections Act leads to far more manipulation and far more access by special interests. The result is dirtier elections.”

The act’s proponents insist that the new system has helped bring fresh candidates into the political system, increase voter turnout, and increase interest in the political process.

“Voter turnout has increased by 10 percent. We’ve got more candidates and more contested races,” said Doug Ramsey, spokesman for Keep It Clean, which is fighting the proposed constitutional amendment.

He said that a defeat in Arizona could have a chilling effect on efforts in other states to finance campaigns with public money.

“Several other states are considering clean elections, and if this is defeated in Arizona, people are going to say, ‘See?’” he said.

Under Arizona’s Clean Elections system, candidates who collect a certain number of $5 donations qualify for public funding. The money comes from two sources: civil and criminal fines, and funding raised by residents who voluntarily opt to contribute with a $5 income-tax checkoff. The state then matches the checkoff contribution.

With Arizona mired in a $70 million to $100 million budget deficit, the act’s opponents argue that the $15 million distributed to candidates so far could be better spent reducing the deficit and funding state education and health care programs.

“When you ask voters, ‘When we have a massive budget deficit in Arizona, should we be funding politicians?’ It’s almost a no-brainer,” said Nathan Sproul, the former Arizona Republican Party chief and campaign manager for No Taxpayer Money for Politicians.

“They spent $13 million in the last election, and most Arizonans realize that number is only going to go up,” Mr. Sproul said.

The Keep It Clean campaign says such arguments are the last gasp of wealthy special interests that want to keep control of Arizona politics. “There are people being elected who aren’t beholden to them,” said Mr. Ramsey. “They can’t overwhelm their opponents with money anymore.”

The campaigns don’t quite adhere to political lines: While most prominent opponents are Republicans, the system does enjoy the support of Republican Sen. John McCain. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, supports the Clean Elections Act, while Republican Sen. Jon Kyl opposes it.

At the same time, Republicans haven’t been shy about taking the money. In 2002, 39 candidates who accepted public funding, also known as “clean” candidates, were elected. Of those, 22 were Republicans and 17 were Democrats.

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