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Arizona lawsuit says measure undermines clean elections

(AP Photo/Ryan Van Velzer, File)

PHOENIX — A lawsuit filed Monday in Arizona state court claims a Republican-backed ballot referendum guts the authority of the state’s clean elections commission.

The state’s 20-year old Citizens Clean Elections Commission administers public financing of elections. A ballot referendum that passed on party lines earlier this year would ask voters if they want to put the commission’s rulemakings under the oversight of the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council, which is staffed by gubernatorial appointees.

The lawsuit, filed by one current and one former commissioner, says the commission has independent rulemaking authority by design, since it regulates politicians.

“It would severely undermine the Commission’s independence to subject its rule-marking to GRRC,” the lawsuit says.

The measure, which passed on party lines in the final throes of the state’s legislative session as HCR2007, would also ask voters if they want to prevent publicly financed candidates from making contributions to political parties or tax-exempt organizations.

The lawsuit claims the measure’s two-pronged approach is unconstitutional, and asks the court to stop the referendum from getting on the ballot.

Speaker of the House J.D. Mesnard said in a statement that Arizona residents deserve the opportunity to vote on the proposed changes.

“HCR 2007 improves the Clean Elections system by making the commission’s rulemaking process more accountable and stopping the flow of public taxpayer money to political parties,” Mesnard said. “It’s disappointing that one former and one current Clean Elections commissioner would sue to prevent voters from having a say.”

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Named plaintiffs are Louis Hoffman, a Democrat and chair of the Board of Arizonans for Clean Elections who used to be a commissioner, and Amy Chan, a Republican commissioner of the Clean Elections Commission.

The commission consists of five members who administer public financing for candidates, among voter education and other finance related efforts. Currently, it’s exempt from the oversight of GRRC, and since it was created by referendum, any alterations to its governing law have to go to voters.

State Rep. Ken Clark, a Democrat who voted against the proposal along with the rest of his caucus, called HCR2007 an attempt to neuter the state’s only independent elections watchdog.

He also said he thinks the proposal is a response to the Outlaw Dirty Money initiative, a citizens-backed initiative angling to get on the ballot this November that would empower the Citizens Clean Elections Commission to be a rulemaker on how to implement broader campaign finance disclosure.

“This, to me, is a boldfaced effort to put some kind of restrictions on clean elections,” Clark said.

Republican Gov. Ducey declined to comment on the ballot referendum or the lawsuit on Tuesday at an unrelated appearance, saying he’ll reserve his opinion until it’s clear what makes it to the ballot.