Ignoring a likely lawsuit, House Republicans pushed through legislation on Thursday to let privately financed candidates take much more money from individual donors and political action committees.
The legislation approved on a 32-23 largely party-line vote scraps the $440 limit on what candidates can take from any one source for any election. Instead, they could take up to $4,000 for each campaign.
HB 2593, which now goes to the Senate, also would totally eliminate the current prohibition against any individual giving more than $6,390 in any year to all candidates for statewide and legislative offices. Under the terms of the measure, they could give as much as they want, subject only to each candidate's new $4,000 restriction.
With 90 legislative seats open every two years, individuals could potentially contribute a total $360,000, assuming every candidate would seek to run with private dollars -- and that donors would give to only one side of each race. And that figure does not even include candidates for statewide office.
Thursday's vote occurred despite warnings from House Minority Leader Chad Campbell that it is unconstitutional and all but promised there would be a court challenge.
He pointed out that voters in 1998 adopted the Citizens Clean Election Act, an optional system of public financing. It allows, but does not require, candidates for statewide and legislative office to get a fixed amount of money for their campaigns if they do not take private money.
And that measure, to try to keep financing more or less equitable, provided funding roughly equal to the private dollars.
Campbell noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has since voided one of the equalizing provisions which provided extra money when privately financed candidates spent more. The fix to that, he said, would be to increase public financing, or at least allow those candidates to raise extra money to level the playing field.
But efforts to do that this session went nowhere.
Campbell said boosting private donations by a factor of nine without similar adjustments to public financing throws the whole system out of balance and undermines the purpose of the 1998 measure to provide a viable alternative for candidates that do not want to seek special interest money. And that, he said, effectively amends the ballot measure, something the Arizona Constitution prohibits without taking the issue back to voters.
"It will end up in the courts,'' Campbell told other legislators.
But Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the two systems are unrelated. And he said there's no reason that allowing privately funded candidates to take more money should mean an automatic boost in public dollars.
He pointed out that simply permitting someone to take more does not guarantee they will get more. And Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said he was outspent last election by a publicly funded candidate even with the current Clean Election dollars.
"The truth is, you'll never have an equal system, ever,'' Mesnard said, saying they are "just different.''
In separate action Thursday, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, to require candidates to determine the ultimate source of the funds they accept or face a potential prison term.
He said some candidates get money from one group which actually was funneled through others. Farley said that leaves voters in the dark about the ultimate source of the dollars.
Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, said what Farley proposed as part of SB 1454 makes sense. But she said the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case limited the ability of the government to restrict donations from independent sources.
"I don't think it's do-able,'' Reagan said.