Clean Elections ideals have bombed; it’s time to move on from political welfare - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Opinion

Clean Elections ideals have bombed; it’s time to move on from political welfare

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Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2011 12:00 pm | Updated: 2:51 pm, Thu Jun 2, 2011.

In last year's Corporation Commission election, candidate Sam George raised $500,000 in private contributions. His "opponents" - actually like-minded colleagues - Paul Newman and Sandra Kennedy each copped $500,000 in matching funds supplied by taxpayers. Another "fair" contest, Clean Elections style.

It's been a rough patch lately for Clean Elections, Arizona's comically misnamed experiment in publicly-funded political campaigns. The United States Supreme Court is seriously considering a case challenging the matching funds provision while the legislature has placed a measure on the 2012 ballot that would end the practice of public funding for politicians.

The creation of Clean Elections was a public relations masterpiece. Polling at the time revealed that only a small minority of voters caught on that the scheme was to use taxpayer money for campaigns, but they did buy the rosy promises.

Clean Elections would open up the process so that more citizens could run for office. The caliber of candidates would be improved. Corruption and special interests would be pushed to the curb. "Clean" was good, wasn't it?

But none of these earnest wishes have come true. For example, despite the contrary claims, the number of candidates is unchanged. According to the Secretary of State's official figures, the number of Arizonans running for the state legislature has consistently averaged between 200 and 230 for at least four decades, a number unaffected by Clean Elections.

Legislator quality is a more subjective matter, but nobody who works with the legislature credibly claims that the general competence of the body has improved since Clean Elections began. Nobody.

Instead, as Greg Patterson, among others, has noted on his Espressopundit blog, political fundraising has a moderating effect on candidates' views. So the result of Clean Elections is that more legislators now come from the political extremes.

That doesn't bother me much because I view politics at its best as a clash of ideas. But the founders of Clean Elections who were anticipating a legislature populated by placid, left-leaning moderates must be sorely disappointed.

What about the grand claim of cleaning up politics? There's not a shred of evidence that special interests have lost their clout or that corruption has been curbed.

Almost half of the legislators caught taking freebies from the Fiesta Bowl ran for office financed by government funds. You can still see the power of the few over the many by watching public employee unions successfully fend off popular reforms of pension fund abuse and overly generous contributions. The promised great reform fizzled on this score, too.

On the other hand, Clean Elections has excelled in fundraising and public relations. One original source of funds (lobbyist fees) was found unconstitutional and an available income tax credit is mostly ignored by a supposedly adoring public.

But Clean Elections' creators provided so abundantly for its maintenance that it still runs a surplus. At a time when transplant patients and school programs are fighting for survival, Clean Elections spends lavishly on self-promoting advertisements, grandiosely heaping praise on itself. Since countervailing views have no comparable funding source, Clean Elections successfully maintains its popularity.

The Supreme Court may well strike down matching funds this summer. By law, these are automatically granted to "Clean" candidates when their traditionally funded opponent raises more than their original government-provided allotment. Because that means that giving to the candidate of your choice is of no benefit or may even work to their disadvantage, courts have ruled that similar measures are an unconstitutional abridgement of your rights to free speech.

But even if Clean Elections did all it claimed to do and was constitutional, it should still go because it's wrong. It's wrong to compel a person to support candidates with whom they disagree. It's wrong to protect incumbents by limiting the amount of political speech that popular opponents can generate.

It's especially wrong - and dangerous - to allow government to be the gatekeeper for public office. Think it's not a real problem? Ask David Smith, who was evicted from the office to which he was elected for spending $6,000 more than the rules allowed, while several violations by the Napolitano gubernatorial campaign were quietly dismissed.

We tried welfare for politicians and it bombed. Let's move on.

• East Valley resident Tom Patterson (pattersontomc@cox.net) is a retired physician and former state senator.

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