Now that the Arizona Court of Appeals has exposed one of the many dirty little secrets of the "Clean Elections" system - that its main funding source is unconstitutional - the public soon may have to decide whether it's worth keeping.
Public funding of political campaigns seems to have grown in acceptance and popularity since the law narrowly passed in 1998. But it's relatively easy to politically support something that others are financially supporting - like the Clean Elections system.
Most of the Clean Elections Commission's $16.2 million for this year's crop of candidates came from surcharges on civil, criminal and traffic fines. It's as politically easy as slapping taxes on tobacco, as few beyond the scorned minority footing the bill protest.
Lobbyists, whose public-enmity rating is probably somewhere between those for smokers and criminals, also were dunned under the original Clean Elections Law, but the courts have struck that down as an unconstitutional taxing of interest groups to support candidates and causes with whom they may disagree.
Rep. Steve May, R-Paradise Valley, challenged the law's main funding source in 1999 after getting a traffic ticket with a $2.70 Clean-Elections surcharge tacked on. A three-judge panel of the appeals court unanimously agreed with May's complaint that taxing him to help bankroll political opponents violates his First Amendment rights.
"Now, Arizona is going to have an honest debate," May declared after Monday's ruling. "If you want welfare for politicians, then you're going to have to fund it in a general way, and the people aren't going to vote for it."
Assuming the state Supreme Court upholds Monday's ruling, Arizonans leary of letting politicians help themselves to the state general fund may wonder aloud whether the traditional system - still used by some candidates - of private fund-raising is really all that bad. The truth, revealed by a Goldwater Institute study of the 2000 elections, is that the law didn't significantly alter state politics.
Most notably, the study debunked the claim that politicians are controlled like puppets by the special interests that contribute to their campaigns - and that voters in turn mindlessly vote for candidates with the biggest special-interest war chests.
Come to find out, special interests as well as voters back candidates who match their views. Who would have thought? There's nothing dirty about that - unless, of course, one doesn't trust voters' judgment.
Given the Clean Elections system's minimal impact and constitutional flaws, it would be a dirty shame to spend millions of tax dollars to perpetuate it.