'Dark money' bill headed to Ducey's desk

Posted at 9:33 PM, Mar 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-30 01:46:49-04

Political donors could spend unlimited amounts on food and beverages to throw extravagant fundraisers without having to disclose a single dollar under a sweeping campaign finance bill the Arizona House passed Monday.

GOP Secretary of State Michele Reagan's office is backing the campaign finance overhaul that critics call a back-door attempt to expand the influence of anonymous political spending in Arizona elections.

Democrats attempted to obstruct the bill on the House floor during debate, but were overcome by the Republican majority.

Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, led the charge with a series of amendments he said would limit future corruption, but none passed.

"We only touched on five problems on this bill, but there's a problem on every page," he said. "This is a lack of disclosure and I think in the end, the public will not stand for it."

Despite the opposition, many Republicans held fast in support. Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, spoke on behalf of the bill and in defense of anonymous political spending.

"I think transparency is generally a good principle but it is not the overarching principle," he said adding that too much transparency could aid government oppression.

Still, four Republicans voted against the measure, including Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, who said he could not support provisions that expand the influence of dark money -- generally defined as political groups that do not report their donors -- in Arizona politics.

The House passed Senate Bill 1516 on a 31-27 vote. It now moves to the governor's desk. The Senate passed the measure earlier this month with only Republican support.

The proposal rewrites state campaign finance laws including a provision that would remove food, beverages and invitations from the list of what is considered a political contribution or expenditure under state law.

Exempting food and beverages would allow individuals including politicians to put up the cash to throw political events without telling the public who was behind it.

"If you don't know who is paying the cost of food and beverages for that party, that creates an issue in the public's right to know who is influencing a legislator," said Tom Collins, executive director of the state's Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

But state elections director Eric Spencer, who helped to craft the measure, says current laws place unfair limitations on event organizers and limits how many people can attend a political function.

"I don't think the lavishness of the party would somehow indicate that a lawmaker will be improperly benefited," Spencer said during a committee hearing on the bill.

Dark money is at the center of the debate over the campaign finance proposal that would let such groups double what they spend on ballot measures. It also would let nonprofit groups spend more money influencing elections without having to reveal donors.

Another provision would allow politicians who are running campaigns or have leftover money from a campaign to give as much as $6,250 to other politicians through candidate campaigns.

The "kingmaker provision" would let politicians buy influence from their colleagues using campaign contributions, Clark said.

Spencer said he has spent much of the last year writing the bill with input from a variety of interested parties. The proposal would make it easier for candidates to run for office, increase the frequency of campaign finance reports and add key enforcement tools, he said.

He believes changes in the law to keep donors secret are important for the democratic process, Spencer said.