- Associated Press - Friday, February 20, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - A Republican-led effort to end public campaign financing in Arizona and siphon its money into education passed its first hurdle in the Legislature this week in the latest effort by the GOP lawmakers who oppose the voter-approved program.

The four Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to advance a referral asking voters to eliminate the Citizens Clean Elections Commission. The proposal would use the commission’s funding to support schools. That’s about $8.5 million a year, collected from a surcharge on civil and criminal fines, civil penalties paid by candidates and small contributions candidates must collect to qualify for public funding.

The voter referral sponsored by Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, along with Senate President Andy Biggs and Rep. J.D. Mesnard, would land on the ballot in 2016 if the full Senate and House vote in favor of SCR1001.

Pierce said more than 15 years after voters created public campaign financing, it’s time to give them a chance to re-evaluate Clean Elections.

“I think it’s fair to ask the voters to re-evaluate the program and have them decide whether they want to spend money on politicians running for office or would they rather have the revenue and the funds going into education and classrooms,” he said Thursday.

Commission Executive Director Tom Collins told the committee that killing the commission would not only eliminate public campaign financing but also end independent enforcement of campaign finance laws and the commission’s voter guides, public candidate debates and voter education efforts.

He also said asking voters to choose between the commission and education is a false choice - especially when Clean Elections gets less than $10 million a year in funding compared to $3.8 billion in state money to schools.

“When you look at this bill it’s misleading, because it asks voters to choose between two different entirely unrelated policies and in fact goes so far as to say that there will be a thing that is called the Clean Elections Fund,” Collins said. “And that fund will have nothing to do with elections.”

Election attorney Tim La Sota said the commission has tried to re-invent itself more on enforcement and failed, and voters should be asked if it should be eliminated. He noted that courts have eliminated matching funds for participating candidates who are outspent by opponents.

“I think it’s a very fair question whether this money should be spent somewhere else, rather than on elections for officials and some of the other things they spend, like million dollar ad campaigns that they run to promote themselves,” La Sota said.

He also noted that there is an enforcement option through the Secretary of State’s office.

Mesnard, who signed on as a sponsor to the bill, said the problem with Clean Election is that it makes politicians unaccountable, even to their own constituents. All a candidate has to do is raise a small number of $5 contributions to quality for public funding, not go out into the community and raise money after convincing voters of their message.

“You don’t have to prove yourself, you don’t have sort of sell your message in the same way that you need to when you’re trying to raise a lot of money from folks,” Mesnard said.

Mesnard acknowledged there was strategy behind linking the repeal of the 1998 voter statute to education, but he said he didn’t think it was unfair.

Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada said it’s fair to ask voters to look at Clean Elections again, just not the way the Republican sponsors propose.

“If we are going to ask voters that question, we should do it in a fair way,” Quezada said. “In proposing to them the choice between Clean Elections and education, that is not a fair question.”

The proposal passed on a 4-3 party-line vote and now heads to the full Senate.

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