PHOENIX — Supporters of public funding of elections made a last-ditch effort Tuesday to stop privately financed candidates from starting to load up next week on donations.
Attorney Joe Kanefield who represents the Citizens Clean Elections Commission told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Mark Brain that unless he intercedes, the higher campaign donations limits will kick in Friday. And Kanefield said he knows several candidates, including some legislators and gubernatorial hopeful Doug Ducey, who already have scheduled fundraisers for this coming week.
The difference is crucial.
Political contributors are now limited to giving a maximum of $440 to a legislative candidate and $912 to a candidate for statewide office. The new law boosts the total to as much as $4,000.
The law also totally eliminates the cap on total contributions any legislative candidate can take from all political action committees, now at $14,688. And it scraps the current $6,390 limit on what any one person or political action committee can give to all candidates each year.
But attorney Michael Liburdi, who represents the Republican legislative leaders defending the change, said lawmakers were well within their right to alter the limits. If nothing else, Liburdi said the old limits are unconstitutionally low.
There have been limits on donations from individuals and PACs since 1986.
In 1998, however, voters approved the Citizens Clean Elections Act — a voluntary system of public financing. Part of that measure said that whatever limits were in place on privately financed candidates would be reduced automatically by 20 percent.
That same year, voters approved a constitutional amendment precluding lawmakers from tinkering with anything approved at the ballot without taking it back to voters or getting a three-fourths vote for something that furthers the purpose of the law.
This legislation was pushed through with largely Republican support — and without that super-majority margin. Kanefield said that makes it illegal.
Liburdi, however, argued that lawmakers did not alter the Clean Elections Act, but only the limits that apply to privately financed candidates.
The immediate question for Brain is whether to delay the higher limits from kicking in Friday while he hears evidence in a full-blown trial. Liburdi said any delay would interfere with the free speech rights of candidates.
Brain was skeptical.
“Would it kill people if they couldn't spend the money till January?” he asked.
“Well, possibly,” Liburdi responded.
“No, not really,” the judge shot back.
Liburdi said the Legislature goes into session in January, and lobbyists are legally prohibited from making campaign donations during the session. He said such a delay would preclude registered lobbyists from giving their money to lawmakers until the session is over, meaning at least April if not later of the election year.
Brain said he will try to have a ruling before Friday.
The outcome of the fight could have even sharper implications on Arizona politics than the big increases this new law would allow.
Brain could rule that lawmakers had no right to raise the campaign donation limits. But he also could rule that the current limits do not comply with federal court rulings which say that candidates have a constitutional right to raise an amount that enables them to wage a credible campaign.
In that case, there would be no limits at all on how much donors can give and candidates could accept.