PHOENIX - Saying they are protecting the First Amendment rights of donors, the Republican-controlled state Senate voted Tuesday to remove all restrictions on how much any individual or political action committee can spend to influence elections.
The measure, which passed on a party-line vote, includes limits on how much donors can give to any one candidate. But some of the new limits are more than eight times the amount now allowed.
HB 2593 also eliminates other laws that cap how much candidates can accept from all sources.
The measure, which already has been approved by the House, now goes to the governor, who, like all the senators who voted for it, is a Republican.
Tuesday's 17-13 vote came over the objections of Democrats who said the change will simply make candidates more beholden to the special interests that get them elected.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, also pointed out that while lawmakers were boosting funding sources for privately financed candidates, they refused to increase how much is given to those candidates who instead choose to run with public funding. Todd Lang, director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said the change could be a new disincentive for candidates to accept public money.
Until now, he said, publicly funded candidates presumed their foes are not always going to raise as much as they legally can, at least in part because of the need to find multiple donors.
"Now, it becomes that much easier to raise money," Lang said.
"You don't have to go door to door under this new proposal," he said. "Because the limits are so high, you go to the insiders and you can raise a lot of money that way."
Current law limits individual contributions to statewide candidates to $1,010, with a $480 limit to those running for the Legislature. However, provisions in the Clean Elections Act restrict the actual amount to $912 and $440.
This legislation boosts the limit to $5,000 for all candidates, adjusted to $4,000.
But the bigger changes deal with aggregate limits.
Now, the most candidates can take from all political action committees is $14,688 a year. This legislation sets the maximum, in essence, at whatever they can raise.
And the $6,390 cap on what any PAC or individual can give to all candidates in any year also is gone.
Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said the current limits are unconstitutional.
Yarbrough said in his last race he faced off against Democrat Bill Gates, who was running with public funds. He said both candidates ended up with about the same amount of money, though Yarbrough said he had some fundraising costs that Gates did not.
But Yarbrough said he got some PAC money after he had collected the maximum he could take from those groups, money he had to return and could not use in his campaign.
"Since donations are a form of political speech, protected by the First Amendment, those donors - actually, those groups of donors - were foreclosed from voluntarily participating by donating to my campaign," he said. "I believe this is wrong, and I believe it is unconstitutional."
Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, said the limits result in those who want to influence elections setting up independent expenditure committees whose funding is not controlled by state law. These well-financed independent committees end up controlling the debate rather than the candidates themselves, he said.
But Gallardo warned that the independent committees will continue to operate anyway.
Lang said a lawsuit is likely if the governor signs the measure, because HB 2593 indirectly affects the 1998 voter-approved Citizens Clean Elections Act. And the Arizona Constitution requires a three-fourths vote to alter any measure enacted at the ballot, a margin this bill did not get.