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Supreme Court blocks Clean Elections matching funds

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Supreme Court blocks Clean Elections matching funds

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The U.S. Supreme Court ordered an emergency halt to matching-funds payouts from Arizona's publicly funded Clean Elections program on Tuesday.

The move puts a wrinkle in the scramble for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

The payment stop means a $1.4 million drop in funding for Gov. Jan Brewer, state Treasurer Dean Martin and Tom Gordon.

The candidates were set to receive matching funds triggered by the spending of Buz Mills, who has opted out of the Clean Elections system. Mills has spent $2.3 million on his campaign as of May 31.

The other three in the GOP race will now receive $707,447 from Clean Elections, as the base funding for the primary, instead of the additional money prompted by the match.

Last week, the court denied a stay, but attorneys for candidates who are entirely privately funded appealed that ruling. The decision led Tucson attorney John Munger to drop out of the race.

"This ruling vindicates the right of traditionally funded candidates to run their campaigns without the heavy hand of government helping their opponents," said Nick Dranias, the Goldwater Institute's lead attorney in the case, known as McComish v. Bennett.

The Goldwater Institute represents John McComish, Nancy McClain and Tony Bouie, legislative candidates whose campaigns are privately funded.

“I am extremely disappointed in the Court’s decision,” said Todd Lang, Executive Director for the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, in a news release. “To take an action such as this so late in an election cycle is unprecedented. Matching Funds result in more speech and political debate, not less. While this is a step back in the protection of the freedom of speech, it will not halt the progress Clean Elections has made over the last decade.”  

The attorneys representing Clean Elections filed a response. "If matching funds are enjoined, the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary will become a lopsided, distorted race in which the publicly-funded candidate will be unable to communicate effectively with voters," wrote Bradley Phillips.

Arizona's Clean Elections law provides campaign funds to candidates who collect a certain amount in $5 donations, if they forgo funds from special-interest groups.

Candidates must also agree to fundraising and spending limits, and attend debates.
"Clean" candidates can receive dollar-for-dollar matching funding if traditionally-financed opponents outspend them, up to three times the original limit.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law last month.

"We conclude that the matching funds provision of the Act imposes only a minimal burden on First Amendment rights," the circuit court ruled. "No plaintiff … has pointed to any specific instance in which she or he has declined a contribution or failed to make an expenditure for fear of triggering matching funds."
Arizona has a "long history" of political corruption, which matching funds may reduce, the appeals court said.

"AzScam, in which legislators literally sold their votes for cash bribes, was just one of many substantial, wide-spread, and highly-publicized political scandals that Arizona experienced in the late 1980s and 1990s. The more candidates that run with public funding, the smaller the appearance among Arizona elected officials of being susceptible to quid pro quo corruption," said the ruling.

The high court has not decided whether to hear the case now, or sometime in the fall. If the court decides to not hear the case, the stay will be lifted.

Candidates were set to receive matching funds beginning June 22. Early voting begins July 29 for the Aug. 24 primary.

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