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Lawmaker: Raising contribution limits would boost transparency

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PHOENIX – Increasing the amount of money Arizonans can contribute to political candidates would deter those who want to give more from working through political action committees and improve transparency, a state lawmaker contends.

“With PACs and special interest groups dumping hundred of thousands or millions of dollars into races, what good is the little money I can raise with the limits I have to abide by?” said Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, author of HB 2593. “We’ve essentially become spectators within our own campaigns.”

With HB 2593, which has won House approval and was awaiting action by the full Senate, Mesnard hopes to increase the amount individuals or political committees can give an exploratory committee, candidate or a candidate’s campaign committee from $488 for legislative candidates and $1,110 for statewide candidates to $2,500.

It would also remove a $6,390-per-year limit on an individual’s total contributions to candidates.

Michael Liburdi, a Phoenix attorney who specializes in election law, said upping these limits would allow privately funded candidates to spend less time fundraising and more time on issues.

“Arizona’s limits are so low that you’d need to go to 10 people to raise $4,500,” he said. “That takes a lot of time.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only Colorado, Maine, Montana had lower individual contribution limits than Arizona during the 2011-12 election cycle.

Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Virginia have unlimited candidate contributions from individuals, according to the group.

Mesnard said Arizona’s limits are unconstitutional, comparing them to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision on Randall v. Sorell. The court ruled that Vermont’s contribution limits, which allowed individuals and political parties to give no more than $400 to candidates over the course of a two-year election cycle, violated First Amendment rights.

“The courts have said that our money is a form of speech,” Mesnard said.

His bill would also separate primary and general elections, which current statute considers as one for campaign contributions. That change would double the amount individuals can give to a single candidate during an election cycle.

The bill would also increase from $2,000 to $5,000 the allowed contributions from Super PACs, political committees that received donations of at least $10 from 500 or more people in a year.

HB 2593 has drawn fire from proponents of the 1998 Citizens Clean Elections Act, in which voters approved public funding for candidates who forgo traditional contributions.

Daniel Ruiz, a public information officer with the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission, said increasing contribution limits would undercut publicly financed candidates.

“If you’re going to raise your traditional limits it needs to be done as a package deal with Clean Elections funding,” he said.

Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, called HB 2593 part of a coordinated war on Arizona’s voters.

He said the bill disregards the tenets of the Citizens Clean Elections Act, which he said voters passed to reduce the amount of money in elections.

“It shifts the focus from the voters and back onto the donor,” Wercinski said.

Mesnard said the impact of increasing the limits would likely be minimal, as few donors give the maximum amount as is. He said the possibility of some donors giving more would really only make a difference in competitive districts.

“It’s not like this is going to rock the boat there,” he said.