Time Running Out, Candidates Face Spending Limbo

Posted on June 03, 2010 | Type: In the News
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As campaign-finance law goes, the courtroom drama swirling around Arizona's Clean Election law is reaching the cliffhanger stage.

On one side is the U.S. Supreme Court, which has responded to the motions of opponents of Arizona's system of publicly financed elections with a sense of urgency unmatched since its Bush vs. Gore decisions following the virtual tie in Florida's presidential election in 2000.

On the other side are the law's beneficiaries - publicly financed candidates for various offices, including statewide positions like governor and attorney general - whose campaign plans could be in serious jeopardy if the high court freezes Clean Elections' matching-funds provision, the law's most controversial element.

A Supreme Court decision on a request to forbid Arizona from issuing matching funds to certain candidates could come as soon as Monday, it appears.

The court's timing could not be more gut-churning. An injunction against the matching-funds provision, which provides extra campaign cash to publicly funded candidates whose privately financed opponents outspend their allocations, would spell chaos for those candidates accepting public funds.

In the Republican primary race for governor, Clean Elections candidates would be forced to run statewide campaigns with just the initial allocation of $707,447, a paltry sum compared with the $2.3 million already spent by businessman Buz Mills, who is self-financing.

Is a midstream change of campaign-finance rules fair? Maybe not. But the matching-funds aspect of Clean Elections creates its own grossly unfair imbalances in Arizona's elections.

And, far worse, it can have - and has had - a muzzling effect on the First Amendment rights of privately financed candidates to reach out to voters.

What's more, publicly funded candidates have been warned repeatedly this year that this storm may be coming. If they haven't laid the groundwork for privately supplementing their public allocations, that is their problem.

None of which means the Supreme Court will act to halt matching funds, of course. The court has demonstrated an intense interest in public campaign-financing systems.

And court watchers have detected that the justices all seem to have a deep understanding of the issues.

But as to their judgment? There is no telling.

We do know the matter is coming to a head quickly.

Two weeks ago, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel rejected an injunction against matching funds sought by lawyers from the conservative Goldwater Institute. Then, on Tuesday, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy indicated the court would like to consider the issue of matching funds.

By court standards, this is edge-of-your-seat drama. Hold onto your hats.

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