Supreme Court nixes Clean Elections matching funds
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Supreme Court nixes Clean Elections matching funds

Publicly funded political candidates will no longer receive matching funds when opponents raise more money after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the practice is unconstitutional.

The 5-4 ruling, which provides campaign funding to candidates for state offices, doesn't entirely kill Arizona's Clean Elections program.

Candidates who choose to follow the program's spending limits will still receive a set sum of campaign funds.

Defending the program, the state said Clean Elections promotes free speech by allowing candidates to run without depending on private donors.

Opponents of the public financing system challenged, saying the system violated their speech rights by subsidizing their political rivals. The high court sided with the challengers, who included five politicians and two political action committees.

"Laws like Arizona's matching funds provision that inhibit robust and wide-open political debate without sufficient justification cannot stand," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 30-page ruling.

Dissenting were the court's four liberal justices: Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

"Like citizens across this country, Arizonans deserve a government that represents and serves them all," wrote Kagan in the dissent. "And no less, Arizonans deserve the chance to reform their electoral system so as to attain that most American of goals."

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Kagan said Clean Elections matching funds help block the "the cancerous effect of corruption."

"We are disappointed with today’s ruling," said Todd Lang, the executive director of Clean Elections. In a news release, Lang said he was "not surprised" by the ruling.

The court suspended Clean Elections matching funds during the 2010 election as it heard an appeal by those challenging the law.

"This is NOT the end of Clean Elections. Today’s ruling impacts only the matching funds provision of the act," Lang said. "The system of publicly-funded elections approved by Arizona voters remains in place. We will now move forward and continue to fund Arizonans who would like to run for public office."

In the 2010 governor's race, Clean Elections provided $707,447 for primary races and $1,061,717 to those running in the general election. When non-clean opponents—including independent groups—spent more, the system provided up to three times the base amount as a match.

The provision applying to outside groups was cited by Roberts as he struck down the matching provision. He said that tying funding to the activities of a group not connected with a political candidate didn't pass muster.

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How Clean Elections matching funds work

  • State candidates who ask for public campaign finances agree not to accept money from businesses, labor unions, political action committees or political parties;
  • If a privately financed candidate spends more than a set amount in the primary, or collects more than a set amount in the general election, his publicly financed opponent gets more money from the state;
  • If an independent campaign committee's spending to support a privately financed candidate that puts that candidate's spending over a set amount, the publicly financed opponent gets more money from the state;
  • For each dollar the traditional candidate spends or receives above the set amount, the publicly funded candidates get 94 cents from the state — $1 minus a 6 percent fundraising fee;
  • Publicly funded candidates continue to get additional funding up to three times the base amount;
  • If there is more than one publicly funded candidate in a race, each of them will receive additional funds to match the funding of the privately funded candidate, up to the three-times-base level.

Base general election funding levels for public campaigns in 2012

  • Governor: $1,063,874
  • Secretary of State: $275,667
  • Attorney General: $275,667
  • Treasurer: $137,811
  • Superintendent of Public Instruction: $137,811
  • Corporation Commissioner: $137,811
  • Mine Inspector: $68,928
  • Legislator: $21,533

—Cristina Rayas/Cronkite News Service