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6:45 PM Mon, Oct. 15th

Lawsuit challenges referendum placed on November ballot

PHOENIX — The author of Arizona’s Citizens Clean Elections Act wants a judge to block a vote on a plan by Republican lawmakers to take away some of the power of the commission that administers the program of public financing of candidates.

In a new lawsuit, Louis Hoffman contends the referendum put on the November ballot by GOP lawmakers asks voters to make two changes to the law on public financing of political campaigns. Attorney Danny Adelman, who represents Hoffman, said the Legislature illegally combined the two changes into a single take it or leave it measure for voters. And that, he said, violates a provision of the Arizona Constitution, which states all laws “shall embrace but one subject.’’

What the lawmakers are trying to do, Adelman charges, is convince voters to accept the whole package — including sharp new restrictions on the Citizens Clean Election Commission — just because they may like the other half of the package which deals with how candidates can spend the public money they get. So he wants Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Anderson to block the measure from appearing on the November ballot.

But Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, who is the sponsor of the measure, denied that the two issues are unrelated and said he believes they should be offered to voters in November as a single proposal.

The Clean Elections Act, approved by voters in 1998, allows — but does not require — candidates for statewide and legislative office to get public dollars for their campaigns if they do not take private funds.

There are some requirements, including gathering a certain number of $5 donations to show a base level of support, as well as restrictions on how candidates can spend their public dollars.

This fight started amid concerns that candidates could buy services from political parties. That led to charges by Republicans that public dollars were being used to subsidize the Democratic Party.

The measure, if approved by voters, would ban any sort of payment to not just a political party but also to any nonprofit that can influence elections.

But the more concerning part to some is requiring the voter-approved commission to have its rules approved by the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council. Foes said subjecting the commission and its powers to the whims of a panel appointed by the governor undermines the independent and nonpartisan nature of the panel. More to the point, they argued this would undermine the purpose idea of public financing, making it easier for candidates to be able to run for office with public funds rather than have to seek donations from special interests, primarily businesses.

There is a history there to support those allegations. Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has acknowledged that his organization’s opposition to public financing goes back to 1998 — even before he arrived in Arizona — when the business group fought to convince voters not to approve the law. Having failed at that, the chamber was involved in multiple subsequent court battles to overturn the law, also largely unsuccessful.

And this measure to curb the commission is clearly partisan nature of the issue, with only Republicans voting in favor of the change and all Democrats opposed.

But the primary issue now is not the merits of the GOP-proposed change that legal question of whether the proposal can legally go on the November ballot.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, defended the measure, saying it improves the system of public financing of candidates “by making the commission’s rulemaking process more accountable and stopping the flow of public taxpayer money to political parties.’’

And he took a slap at both Hoffman and Amy Chan, who, like Hoffman, also served on the commission, for seeking to block a public vote.

Mesnard did not, however, address the fact that Chan is herself an attorney and a former state elections commissioner who is familiar with election laws. But the speaker said he remains convinced that courts will uphold the legislative decision to put the two issues together in a single ballot measure.

Adelman, however, said he believes judges will have a hard time swallowing the state’s argument that the two issues are somehow inextricably linked and need to be placed before voters as a single issue.

“One has to do with whether Clean Elections candidates can give money to a (political) party or another organization,’’ he said.

“The other provision has to do with subjecting the commission’s rulemaking to the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council,’’ Adelman continued. “They just have absolutely nothing to do with each other.’’

No date has been set for a hearing.