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Full disclosure: Clean Elections measure needs work to push transparency

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What the Devil won't tell you

Full disclosure: Clean Elections measure needs work to push transparency

Early stumbles threaten a much-needed iniatiave to force dark money & influence into the light

  • Jon Phillips/Flickr

A citizen's initiative to change state law to — get this — require disclosure and clean up the state's elections faces a big hurdle: getting on the ballot.

Arizonans for Clean and Accountable Elections started late, got snubbed by a signature-gathering firm and had to go dark once already all in the last six weeks. They seem to be back on track today but it will be a haul to get the initiative on the ballot.

The measure is important.

If disclosing who is bankrolling your campaign injures your standing with the voters, you are exactly the kind of candidate who should disclose whom is bankrolling your campaign.

If you don't want voters to know which lobbyist is giving you presents and what those presents are, you are exactly the kind of lawmaker who needs to 'fess up' about who gave you what.

If your special interest is the kind that might harm the candidate it touches, your influence is exactly the kind that needs exposure to the light.

The idea of disclosure is pretty frickin' simple and would seem to be the bare minimum in an advanced democracy. However, in Arizona even criminal scandal-gates surrounding buying favors aren't enough to rouse action to fix a broken system. So citizens are left to force full disclosure by themselves. Attempts to do that need signatures and need them fast.

The number I heard is that the group has gathered 30,000 as of last week. Julie Erfle, a spokeswoman for the group backing the proposal, would neither confirm nor deny that number. She acknowledged there were problems getting going but said she was confident they'd get the measure on the ballot.

They need 150,653 signatures by July 7 to shine some sunlight on dark money and with the loftier goal of getting money out of politics. Then they'll no doubt try to get oil out of water and petulant pettiness out of reality TV.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club is mulling legal action to  keep the initiative off the ballot because it changes a state law that will be already changed before the election. It's a cute opening salvo but irrelevant because the initiative would re-establish the law. 

The shenanigans have begun to wreck this ballot initiative because it:

  • Forces disclosure of all meals and caps lobbyists gifts to $30 per quarter, while banning lobbyist-financed junkets that turned into the Fiesta Bowl scandal.
  • Requires disclosure of dark money funding campaigns on the down-low and bans contributions from state contractors receiving more than $250,000.
  • cleans up the Clean Elections system, fixing some issues with the good-government measure that I don't like in the first place. But hey, word has it the state is more than just me.
  • Lowers maximum contribution limits from $6,000 to $1,000 for legislative candidates.

I know. I know. Sort of takes the fun out of being a lawmaker if junkets are off the table. Get by on $24,000 plus per diem? C'mon! If lobbyists can't bankroll campaigns, they might lose control of a given lawmaker and there's a whole "laws of nature thing" in the balance. That bankrolling gets a lot easier when a lobbyist can give a whole lot without the voters knowing just how in debt they are.

I had a poli sci prof who hit it square on the head: Government works most when the winners know they've won and the losers don't know they lost. Influence peddling is the fuel that keeps that going and dark money is the nitrous oxide.

I prefer constitutional amendments because they are less mess-with-able, even if they require an extra 75,000 signatures and limit the change in law to one issue at a time. I like more focused efforts. All this could be accomplished by constitutional amendment but it would require about five of them. Initiatives can tempt authors to add that little bit more that turns out to be a poison pill. However, the state Constitution forbids the Legislature from overturning citizen's initiatives because God knows they've tried and will try to mess with this law. That leads to court challenges but backers should prevail. 

They seriously don't want you to know

The Legislature did pass a bill this year requiring disclosure. It just doesn't apply to nonprofits that dark-money sorcerers prefer. It's like cracking down on speeding but exempting cars from the laws. The initiative proposal would force secret donors out into the light.

Look, right now, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending a bunch of money attacking U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick because she boasted about her vote for the Affordable Care Act. That's fine. That's politics. But the voiceover speaks to us in the first person plural. "We have much to be proud about in Arizona ..." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is in no way "we." They ain't the Peoria soccer mom they are pretending to be in the ad. They are a collection of the biggest, oldest conglomerates in America. They are the corporate influence co-opting the system in all the ways that piss off Bernie supporters, Trump supporters and most of the rest of us.

However, if the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called themselves "the Old Money Alliance of Massive Global Conglomerates" or just "Multi-Nationals R Us" voters would be less sympathetic. So they call themselves "the U.S. Chamber of Commerce," to align their brand with neighborhood small businesses populating local chambers of commerce. They want to hide in plain sight in Anytown, USA, alongside neighborhood shop owners of Main Street America while pressing for trade agreements to leverage their economies of scale so they can gut Main Street, USA, of the last remaining inefficient shop owner.

At least we know who the U.S. Chamber is. Imagine if all we had to go on was the name and the dollar amount spent on elections. That's dark money. So we know that in Arizona, $15 million in "dark money" was spent. We just don't know who spent it and what they want as a return on investment.

Look, there's something we gotta understand up front about a publicly traded corporation. Their board and officers are required by law to do what is best for shareholder value. They don't buy favor from lawmakers seeking the public good. They seek favor to improve their bottom line. It's not an evil thing. It's a fiduciary thing

Corporations may be people but they aren't at all interested in what's best for the citizenry. Consider for a moment the "Arizona Free Enterprise Club." Boy is that an oxymoronic name. If it's true free enterprise, it's not a club. If it's truly a club, it's not free enterprise. So they are out to help the members of their club. Check to see if you are a member.

Non-profit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica did a report showing conservative groups are out to keep the public from knowing who is backing the candidates voters choose from and just who is currying favor.

I think it's unnecessary because voters have been known to look past who is seeking what influence. Jon Kyl had a good answer for this when talking about oil companies giving to him. Basically he said oil companies want limited government and so do I. I'm not a small-government conservative because Exxon wants me to be.

Still, the public has a right to know who is electioneering. It's why prior to Citizens United, conservatives sought to remove campaign finance caps but still require full disclosure.

Today if they can avoid letting the world know how they are trying to curry favor, they will gladly avoid leaving finger prints. They prefer it that way. If corporate interests need the cover darkness to spend $15 million on Arizona elections, what would they do differently in the light of day? 

Fiestagate hangover lingers 

The initiative would also streamline and clarify the state's lobbying disclosure rules.

In 2011, the Fiesta Bowl scandal tarnished the Legislature because game officials sought to buy influence by flying lawmakers to all-expenses-paid trips to high-profile football games, among other goodies.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery looked into the affair and found that the laws regulating lobbying were such a mess he couldn't make a case against anyone involved.

Any other state in the country would fix this, and indeed in the wake of the scandal scads of bills were introduced by Democrats and Republicans alike. Not one went anywhere.

As the law stands now, gifts of more than $10 must be reported but there are so many caveats that the real threshold is $500. I can think of a whole bunch of presents for $499 that would make my life better. Can you? Some states ban even a cup of coffee. Others allow more but require full-disclosure. Either would work. Arizona has a law that a prosecutor can't make heads or tails of and that does not work, and the Legislature is OK with that. Please ask "why?"

Clean gets dirtier and better

The initiative would also shore up the "Clean Elections" system by granting the Clean Elections Commission authority over the system and increasing the money available for candidates running "clean."

The Clean Elections system has not gotten money out of politics and has served mainly to embolden fringier candidates, whom no one would give six bucks because they don't know jack. However, they can get the necessary $5 donations to qualify for state funding.

The law would allow candidates to raise up to $160 from each contributor to qualify, which will help divide the wheat from the batshit crazy.

What's worse has been the expenditure limits. To run "clean" without having to ask for money from deeper-pocket donors, candidates get to spend only $24,000 on a general election campaign, with $16,000 allotted for the primary. That's nowhere near enough to get candidate's message out so the state's voters go with the only information they tend to have about contenders: Party identification.

The initiative would increase the total money available to just under $210,000 for state Senate races and $150,000 for House races, which still isn't enough to fight through the maelstrom of ads, mailers and messaging bought by post-Citizens United money in high-profile races. It is an improvement though.

Nor does the initiative include the dopey provision included in 1998 amendment that increased an opponent's public funding to match every dollar a candidate raised traditionally. The U.S. Supreme Court knocked that down and rightly so because if I give $500 to candidate A, the last thing I want is to then have $500 taken out of tax dollars to pay for candidate B.

So it's an improvement on Clean Elections, too.

No passing puck

If the effort to get the initiative ready to go for 2016 fails, there will be a chorus blaming the Legislature for changing the rules. Pony pucks.

The Legislature in 2007 made it harder to get on issues on the ballot, upping signature requirements to 10 percent of voter turnout in the previous gubernatorial election and 15 percent for an amendment. 

Fine. Seriously. If you weren't here in the 2000s, you missed the massive ballots that required a coffee break and a few hours sleep to get through. Between 1998 and 2008, voters had to wade through 69 ballot measures. In the years since, 49 ballot measures have been attempted and just 9 have made the ballot. Only two have passed. 

Citizens for Clean and Accountable Elections should not be scrambling this way to get the measure on the ballot. They've been at it for more than a year. The Hemp People had their initiative filed in November 2014. A host of organizations were collecting names last summer. Signature gathering should have been ready to go on the day the window for rounding them up opened.

With this Legislature, anything law that isn't some form of movement conservatism will require an initiative changing law or a clean constitutional amendment. Citizens initiatives will be the only way to fix school funding and correct the course in any way the public wants that doesn't require hard right turns. We'd better get good at it.

Meanwhile, keep a lookout for signature gatherers. If big money doesn't want the people to know, it's not out for the people.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.
Correction: An earlier version of this column provided incorrect tallies of the funding that would be available to legislative candidates should the measure be approved.

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