Saying a quick answer is needed, the Citizens Clean Election Commission asked the Court of Appeals on Wednesday to overturn a trial judge’s decision allowing candidates to take a lot more money from political supporters.
Tom Collins, the commission’s executive director, said his board believes the judge erred in concluding that lawmakers are free to reset the donation limits to whatever they want. The commission believes those limits are linked to the parallel public funding system which, by virtue of being enacted by voters, is protected from legislative tinkering.
Potentially more significant, Collins said that last week’s ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Mark Brain allowed candidates for legislative office to immediately start accepting up to $4,000 from individual donors and political action committees. The old limits — the one Collins is trying to have restored — cap that at $440.
The new law also allows legislative candidates to take unlimited dollars from all political action committees, superseding a $14,688 limit. And it eliminates the $6,390 lid on the amount any one individual or PAC can give to all candidates in any given year.
Collins said that the longer the appellate court takes to resolve the issue — he hopes in favor of the commission — the more time candidates will believe they can take and spend these bigger donations.
“(We want to) make sure that folks who are giving money, folks who are taking money and folks who enforce the law ... and any voter has some certainty about what the rules of the road are,” he said.
In the interim, those larger donations are legal.
Michael Liburdi, who represents Republican legislative leaders who defended the change, said that frees up candidates to spend the money they get. More to the point, he contends they are free to keep the larger donations now being collected even if an appellate court subsequently overturns Brain’s ruling.
And Liburdi said Wednesday he will fight any challenge to that ruling.
“We are going to vigorously defend the free speech rights of all Arizonans,” he said. That is based on the argument by supporters of the higher limits that there is a constitutional right not only of individuals to give what they want but also for candidates to be able to gather enough in private donations to wage an effective campaign.
Voters approved the Citizens Clean Elections Act in 1998.
It allows — but does not require — candidates for statewide and legislative office to get public funds for their campaigns if they agree not to take private dollars. Most of the cash comes from a surcharge on civil, criminal and traffic fines, with the amount of money dependent on the office sought.
Part of what voters approved also said that the donation limits available to privately financed candidates, first enacted in 1986, would be reduced by 20 percent.
That same year, voters approved a constitutional amendment blocking lawmakers from altering or repealing anything enacted at the ballot without taking the issue back to voters. The only exception in the Voter Protection Act is with a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate — and only if the change furthers the purpose of the original measure.
The sharp increase in donations and the related changes were approved by lawmakers earlier this year, without the three-fourths margin.
Brain ruled last week they were free to do that.
He said the 1998 initiative never enacted new specific limits on private donations. And that, said Brain, left lawmakers free to set them wherever they want, subject only to that 20 percent reduction.
In his legal filings to the Court of Appeals, commission attorney Joe Kanefield questioned the logic of Brain’s conclusion.
“If the Legislature could increase or eliminate the campaign contribution limits without complying with the Voter Protection Act’s requirements, the reform voters effected ... would be destroyed,” he wrote.
“If the Voter Protection Act does not apply, (the law) would be reduced to a meaningless arithmetic game, decreasing by 20 percent whatever limits the Legislature chooses to set,’’ Kanefield continued. And he said that would free the Legislature to “just outright cancel the limit,” as it did with the cap on total donations from PACs.
“The voters enshrined the Voter Protection Act in the Constitution to prevent exactly such legislative gamesmanship,” Kanefield said.
The appellate judges agreed late Wednesday to consider the request on Oct. 9, giving Liburdi and his clients seven business days to respond.
Changes in laws on how much money contributors are allowed to give political candidates, and how much candidates can accept. All figures are for a two-year election cycle, unless noted otherwise.