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Senator backing off plan to have voters decide future of Clean Elections

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PHOENIX – A senator pressing for a public vote on whether to keep Arizona’s system of public campaign financing said he plans instead to seek legislation that would, among other provisions, remove the option of making $5 voluntary contributions to Clean Elections on tax returns.

Sen. John McComish R-Ahwatukee, said he also wants to require candidates to get more $5 qualifying contributions and to limit Clean Elections’ promotions and advertising to explaining what system does rather than touting its value to the state.

“My concern with Clean Elections will be totally solved if Clean Elections would be eliminated, but you can’t always get what you want,” he said. “This solves most of what I and others consider the most egregious aspects of Clean Elections.”

McComish authored SCR 1021, which would put the future of Clean Elections on the November ballot. That resolution won Senate approval and has received an endorsement from the House Judiciary Committee.

He said he plans to drop that measure and instead add the restrictions he has proposed HB 2779, a bill authored by Rep. Nancy McLain, R-Bullhead City, that would remove a requirement that privately funded candidates file financial reports triggered by reaching certain contribution levels when running against Clean Elections candidates.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional matching funds for Clean Elections candidates whose privately funded opponents raise more money than them. McComish was the plaintiff in that case.

Arizonans voted in 1998 to establish the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission to provide public funds for qualifying candidates.  The money comes from a surcharge on civil penalties and criminal fines, voluntary $5 contributions on tax forms that receive a tax credit, $5 qualifying contributions from candidates and civil penalties paid by candidates.

To qualify for Clean Elections funding, a candidate for state Legislature must receive 220 qualifying contributions, while candidates for statewide office must collect 1,650 qualifying contributions.

McComish said he wants to raise those totals by 12 percent.

He said he developed the compromise in discussions with Clean Elections supporters.

“I think it shows that compromise is possible,” McComish said. “If people work together and give in to the other side a little bit, I think successful compromise is possible.”

Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said McComish and his supporters changed their minds because of strong public support for Clean Elections.

“I think they understood that if they put this on the ballot it would not be successful,” he said.

Todd Lang, executive director of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said he doesn’t like the compromise but understands that something had to be done.

“Basically, we’re giving up some important aspects of the program in return for really nothing, just for them not to give the referral,” he said. “I don’t know if they had the votes to pass the referral anyway, but because it’s our job to protect the law, we felt that this was in the best interests of the program.”

Lang said he expects donations to drop if McComish gets his wish, though he said most of the commission’s money comes from the surcharge on civil penalties and criminal fines.

“And that’s a shame, because that’s another way to support the program, but it was important to the folks who are behind the repeal, so we agreed to it,” he said.