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Erasing campaign contribution limits now would create problems, Bennett tells court

Erasing campaign contribution limits now would create problems, Bennett tells court

PHOENIX — Reversing his earlier stance, Secretary of State Ken Bennett now wants to keep caps in place for how much money candidates can take from individuals and special interests, at least for the time being.

In legal papers filed with the Arizona Supreme Court, Bennett acknowledged he initially supported the bid by Republican legislative leaders to allow much higher limits — and, in some cases, no limits at all — on what donors can give and candidates can accept. In fact, his attorney argued to the state Court of Appeals, the Republican-controlled Legislature was legally entitled to make the changes.

The appellate court disagreed, blocking the higher limits from taking effect.

GOP leaders want the state’s high court to overrule the appellate court. But they concede a full-blown review of the issue could take months, so they are asking the justices to allow the higher limits to be implemented while the case plays out in court.

Bennett, through his lawyer, told the justices that would be a bad idea.

“The public has a significant interest in the smooth function of an election,” wrote attorney David Weinzweig for the secretary of state. He said changing the rules now — which actually would be for the third time — would result in “uncertainty and chaos.”

Bennett said he has worked since the appellate court ruling to inform both candidates and contributors that they are bound by what was on the books until September.

“Another change in regulations would undo those efforts and further upend Arizona’s campaign finance system,” he said.

What the high court decides could ultimately affect the outcome of next year’s political races, as it will determine how much candidates running with private dollars can raise.

Until this year, candidates for legislative office have been able to collect no more than $440 from any one individual or political action committee. That limit has been $912 for those seeking statewide office.

The legislation raises that to $4,000 from any one source for all candidates.

Potentially more significant, the measure repeals a cap of $14,688 on how much candidates can take from all PACs for any election, as well as a $6,390 lid on the amount any one individual or PAC can give to all candidates in any year.

The move was challenged by the Citizens Clean Election Commission, which charged the limits were tied to the voluntary system of public financing. Thomas Collins, the commission’s executive director, said the fact the system was adopted in 1998 by voters means changes can be made only by taking the issue back to voters or with a three-fourths vote of the Legislature, something it did not get.

A trial judge disagreed, allowing the higher limits to take effect. But that only lasted 32 days, until the Court of Appeals ruled the new limits are not legal, enjoined the law from being enforced, and reinstated the lower limits. That led to proponents seeking Supreme Court review.

Attorney Mike Liburdi, representing the Republican legislators, said living with the lower limits creates a hardship on not only them, but also members of the public who might want to give to their campaigns or those of other politicians.

He also argued the lower limits infringe on the First Amendment rights of both contributors and candidates. Liburdi also said it is illegal to tell candidates for election in 2014 their constitutional rights do not apply.

Collins denied the existing limits are unconstitutionally low or that politicians have a First Amendment right to take more money from any one source.

In his legal filings, Bennett did not address that issue. Instead, he said his interest is consistency.

He said the purpose of an injunction is to “preserve the status quo” while an issue is litigated. But in this case, Bennett said, supporters of the law want to immediately reinstate the contribution and donation limits that actually had existed for just 32 days.

He said it is better to leave the old limits in place until there is a final resolution of the matter.

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