Saying they are protecting the First Amendment rights of donors, the Republican-controlled state Senate voted Tuesday to remove all restrictions on how much any individual or political action committee can spend to influence elections.
The measure, which passed on a party-line vote, does maintain limits on how much donors can give to any one candidate. But some of those new limits are more than eight times as much as currently allowed.
Potentially more significant, HB 2593 scraps other laws which cap how much candidates can accept from all sources. That makes the effective spending limit for campaigns how many PACs can be convinced to write out a check.
The measure, which already has been approved by the House, now goes to the governor who, like all the senators who voted for it, is a Republican.
Tuesday's 17-13 vote came over the objections of Democrats who said the change will simply make candidates more beholden to the special interests that get them elected.
But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, also pointed out that while lawmakers were boosting funding sources for privately financed candidates they refused to increase how much is given to those candidates who instead choose to run with public funding. Todd Lang, director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said the change could be a new disincentive for candidates to accept public dollars.
Until now, he said, publicly funded candidates presume their foes are not always going to raise as much as they legally can, at least in part because of the need to find multiple donors.
"Now, it becomes that much easier to raise money,'' Lang said.
"You don't have to go door to door under this new proposal,'' he said. "Because the limits are so high you go to the insiders and you can raise a lot of money that way.''
Current law limits individual contributions to statewide candidates to $1,010, with a $480 limit to those running for the Legislature. The actual figures are $912 and $440 because of provisions in the Clean Elections Act.
This legislation boosts the limit to $5,000 for all candidates, adjusted to $4,000.
But the bigger changes deal with aggregate limits.
Now, the most candidates can take from all political action committees is $14,688 a year. This legislation sets that number, in essence, at whatever they can raise.
Similarly, the $6,390 on what any PAC or individual can give to all candidates in any year also is gone.
Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said the current limits are unconstitutional.
Yarbrough said in his last race he faced off against Democrat Bill Gates who was running with public funds. He said both candidates ended up with about the same amount of money, though Yarbrough said he had some fundraising costs which Gates did not.
But Yarbrough said he got some PAC dollars after he had collected the maximum he could take from those groups, money he had to return and could not use in his campaign.
"Since donations are a form of political speech, protected by the First Amendment, those donors -- actually, those groups of donors -- were foreclosed from voluntarily participating by donating to my campaign,'' he said. "I believe this is wrong and I believe it is unconstitutional.''
Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, said the limits effectively means those who want to influence elections set up independent expenditure committees whose funding is not controlled by state law. More to the point, McComish said it means these well-financed independent committees end up controlling the debate rather than the candidates themselves.
Gallardo, however, said nothing in the legislation will put these independent committees out of business, noting they have sprung up across the country to influence both local and national races. He said that is no reason for "blowing the caps off of campaign finance limits.''
"Who, exactly, is asking to be able to contribute much more money?'' he asked. Gallardo said he has not heard from constituents that they want to be able to write out larger checks.
"Let's be honest: It's special interest groups,'' he said. "It's the political action committees and a small group of folks who can afford to give $5,000 in an election year to one particular candidate.''
Lang said a lawsuit is likely if the governor signs the measure.
He said HB 2593 indirectly affects the 1998 voter-approved Citizens Clean Elections Act. And the Arizona Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to alter any measure enacted at the ballot, a margin this bill did not get.
Even before this legislation, participation in the public financing scheme already had dropped from about two-thirds of candidates to close to 30 percent. That came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it is illegal for the state to provide a dollar-for-dollar match of public funds when privately financed candidates spend more.
"If this bill becomes law, I think it will go down even further,'' Lang said.
Funding for the public financing system comes largely from a 10 percent surcharge on all civil, criminal and traffic fines.