A judge late Thursday cleared the way for politicians to immediately start taking much more money from private donors and political action committee for their campaigns.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Mark Brain refused to block the sharply higher cap on donations from taking effect as scheduled today. The judge said he is not convinced the change, pushed through by the Republican majority in the Legislature, violates the will of voters in 1998 when they approved a parallel system of public financing.
More to the point, he said the legislation does not run afoul of a constitutional amendment, also approved in 1998, which bars lawmakers from altering anything approved by voters.
Brain's ruling means candidates for office now can take up to $4,000 from individuals and political action committees every two years. That is up from $440 for legislative contenders and $912 for those running for statewide office.
Potentially more significant, the new law scraps entirely the current $14,688 limit on what legislative candidates can take from all political action committees for their races.
And the $6,390 lid on the amount any one individual or PAC can give to all candidates in any given year also is gone.
Braid did leaves the door open to reconsidering the question after hearing further legal arguments. But the judge said the chances of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission convincing him he was wrote "appear slim.''
The ruling is a major setback for the commission and could be a severe or even fatal blow for the entire public funding scheme.
While the measure boosts funding opportunities for privately financed candidates, lawmakers did not consider another measure to increase public funding. That creates a potential huge funding disparity which could make it unattractive for anyone to opt for public dollars.
For example, legislative contenders are limited to $15,253 in public funding for a primary race and $22,880 for a general election.
The figures for statewide campaigns vary by office.
Commission Chairman Louis Hoffman said the ruling, unless overturned, will reduce the number of candidates willing to reject private dollars to instead accept public funds. But Hoffman said there will still be a role for public financing.
"I don't think it dooms the system,'' he said.
"I think it will still be around to provide a path for candidates who wouldn't otherwise be able to run,'' Hoffman said. "But as a practical matter, those people will be facing much more heavily funded opposition in many races.''
Michael Liburdi, who represented GOP legislative leaders defending the law, called the ruling "a victory for constitutional government and free speech.'' He argued lawmakers had to raise the limits.
In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court voided Vermont's $200 donation limit by individual donors as violating free speech rights because it did not give candidates enough to wage an effective campaign. In fact, Justice Stephen Breyer, in that same ruling, specifically mentioned Arizona's limit -- then $760 for a statewide race -- as one of the seven lowest in the entire country.
Liburdi said if lawmakers did not raise the limits, a court might invalidate them, leaving no restraints at all on donations.
The 1998 Citizens Clean Elections Act allows candidates for legislative and statewide who agree not to take private dollars to get public financing for their races. That same voter-approved law also said the already existing limits on donations to private candidates must be reduced by 20 percent.
It was those limits which lawmakers altered earlier this year.
Attorney Joe Kanefield said such a change effectively amends the Clean Elections Act, making it off-limits to legislative tinkering because of the constitutional ban on altering voter-approved measures. But Brain said lawmakers are free to set whatever limits they want, subject only to that 20 percent reduction.
Tom Collins, the commission's executive director, said Thursday the panel will seek expedited review of Brain's ruling. He said it is important for candidates to know how much they will be able to collect for next year's races.
One open question is what happens if an appellate court overturns Brain.
Collins said the commission would consider requiring candidates to refund the excess funds they took to the donors. But Liburdi said he believes candidates are legally entitled to keep anything they got in the interim.
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.
Individual and PAC contribution to legislative candidate
* Current limit: $440
* New limit: $4,000
Individual and PAC contribution to statewide candidate
* Current limit: $912
* New limit:$4,000
Annual limit on what individuals or PACs can give to all candidates
* Current limit: $6,390
* New limit: No limit
Contribution from large PACs, with 500+ donors, to legislative candidate
* Current limit: $1,816
* New limit: $8,000
Contribution from large PACs, with 500+ donors, to statewide candidates
* Current limit: $4,560
* New limit: $4,560
Limit on what legislative candidates can take from all PACs
* Current limit: $14,688
* New limit: No limit
-- Sources: Secretary of State's Office, HB 2593