PHOENIX -- Members of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission voted Friday to sue the Legislative Council for what commissioners claim is an effort to mislead voters about an upcoming ballot measure.
Tom Collins, the commission’s executive director, said the council, made up of 10 Republicans and four Democrats, failed to include relevant information when it approved a description of changes the Republican-controlled Legislature wants voters to approve in how the commission operates. And some of what the council did put in the description, he said, is flat wrong.
Collins said that means voters, who have to ratify the changes approved by lawmakers, are being given an inaccurate picture of what the measure would do.
The lawsuit authorized unanimously by the bipartisan commission most immediately will seek to block the Secretary of State’s Office from using the description, adopted less than 24 hours earlier on a party-line vote by the Legislative Council, in the ballot pamphlet mailed out ahead of the November election to all households with registered voters.
It would then be up to a court to determine if lawmakers complied with state law which requires an “impartial analysis’’ of all ballot measures. If the judge agrees with challengers, he or she then could order council members to reconvene and recraft the language.
At the heart of the fight is the decision by voters in 1998 to set up a voluntary system of public financing of statewide and legislative elections. Under the Citizens Clean Elections Act, candidates who agree not to take private dollars are provided with funds generated from things like a surcharge on criminal, civil and traffic fines.
That 1998 ballot measure also established the commission to not only oversee the financing but also empowered it to educate voters as well as to enforce campaign finance laws.
It is the enforcement of that provision which has gotten the commission crossways with some GOP lawmakers.
Republicans in the Legislature have voted to repeal many laws requiring that outside groups that seek to influence elections disclose both their spending as well as the individuals who are financing those efforts. But the commission, having been created through that voter-approved constitutional amendment, is exempt from -- and beyond the reach -- of legislative action. And that leaves their campaign finance rules intact.
This ballot measure, Proposition 306, attacks that by seeking to eliminate the ability of the commission to enact its own rules. Instead, changes would have to be approved by the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council.
But in debating the language Thursday, Rep. Ken Clark, D-Tucson, said the description does not mention the repeal of existing authority but is makes it sound like voters are being asked to give new rule-making powers to the commission.
Potentially more significant, Clark noted it does not tell voters that the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council is not some nonpartisan body but in fact is made up of six people hand-picked by Gov. Doug Ducey and a member of his Department of Administration.
There’s a history there.
GRRC voted two years ago to block the commission from adopting rules to require financial disclosure of the sources of anonymous “dark money’’ political campaigns. But the commission, citing its voter-given constitutional authority, simply ignored that ruling.
Proposition 306 would remove that constitutional exemption from GRRC purview.
Collins said there’s an even bigger issue with the ballot explanation approved by the Legislative Council.
“It does not accurately describe what the commission does,’’ he said.
That omission did not go unnoticed when the council met on Thursday.
Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, sought to include language in the explanation detailing the commission’s role in enforcing campaign finance laws and voter education.
“The Clean Elections Act is more than just public financing,’’ Clark told colleagues, asking that voters be told about those other duties.
That suggestion was rejected by House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler.
“Yeah, we could go into what the clean elections system is all about,’’ he said. But Mesnard said he saw no reason to put it into the official ballot explanation, saying voters can go online to do their own research.
That refusal annoyed Rivko Knox with the League of Women Voters of Arizona.
“When I was a kid, I learned there were sins of commission and sins of omission,’’ she told Legislative Council members. And she said sins of commission -- deliberate lies -- are the easiest to spot.
“But leaving out information can just as easily distort the meaning,’’ Knox said.
Collins said the failure to adequately describe the commission and its power is just part of what voters are not being told.
The other part of Proposition 306 would make it illegal for publicly funded candidates to give any of their money to political parties or to outside groups that try to influence elections. Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, said there is no reason for public dollars to wind up in the hands of outsiders.
Collins said voters are not being told that the commission already has rules which allow such payments only when a candidate is buying a specific service from a party, such as a voter list. And he said the commission even tightened its rules for auditing and tracking such expenditures.
This legal fight over the ballot explanation presumes that Proposition 306 will actually be on the November ballot.
A judge is set to hear arguments next month in a separate lawsuit which contends that lawmakers acted illegally in asking voters to approve it because it contains two separate subject: stripping the commission’s independent rule-making authority and placing restrictions on how candidates can use their money.
Attorney Danny Adelman is arguing the Arizona Constitution says ballot measures like these “shall embrace but one subject.’’ He contends Proposition 306 illegally combines the two changes into a single take-it-or-leave-it proposal.
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