March 29, 2011- Political corruption in Arizona in the 1990s was so bad that a sting operation swept up almost 10% of the Legislature in a scheme to open a casino in the state. In one notorious episode, the chairman of the judiciary committee brought a gym bag to a meeting to carry away his $55,000 bribe.
Arizonans got so fed up with politicians on the take that they voted in 1998 to set up a "clean elections" system to try to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics. Like the public financing systems in other states, Arizona's doesn't force anyone to participate. It gives public campaign money to candidates who voluntarily agree to limit private contributions.
The system has been popular with candidates, and it seems to be working. After Gov. Janet Napolitano (now secretary of Homeland Security) won office in 2003 under the system, she was able to quickly enact a prescription discount plan over drug company opposition because, she said, "special interests had nothing to hold over me."
Not surprisingly, Arizona's system has been under attack from the beginning, and now its enemies appear on the verge of badly damaging it. The Supreme Court hears arguments today over a provision that tries to level the playing field by triggering matching funds for publicly financed candidates when their privately financed opponents spend more.
The privately financed candidates and interest groups challenging the provision complain that it restricts their free speech rights by discouraging them from spending — because that only leads to more money for their opponents. This might have been a convincing argument if there were evidence it was happening. But the challengers' evidence at trial was weak, and a study of Arizona elections by political scientists from Fordham, Harvard and Yale showed "no evidence that spending has been chilled."
Moreover, the contention that candidates are intimidated by publicly financed opponents is mystifying. Isn't it a long-held American principle that the cure for speech you disagree with is more speech of your own? Nothing in Arizona's law bars privately funded candidates from raising and spending as much as they can and, at a certain point, the public financing system stops matching private money.