Especially with last year’s mayoral election in Prescott so badly muddied by secret donations to political efforts for that critical local office, it is with acute disappointment that we observe the state Senate’s vote last week, approving, in a narrow margin – 17 to 13 – a measure that, since being signed into law this week by the governor, outlaws any local ordinance in Arizona that would require donors to political campaigns to be identified.
The law -- which went into effect Monday, April 2 – prohibits counties and municipalities throughout the state from requiring non-profit groups that seek to influence local elections to register as political action committees. The new law also prohibits any local requirement to identify contributors to local political campaigns.
The Legislature and governor approved the law despite outspoken objections in Prescott and elsewhere, notably in Tempe, to the nefarious influence of what is known as “dark money” in elections.
In January, state Rep. Vince Leach proposed the bill, HB2153, but in February, when it came up for a vote in the House, Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, opposed it. In voting against the bill, Campbell said that, when it comes to making contributions to a political campaign, “a citizen should take a step forward and own what he believes in.”
Campbell urged his fellow lawmakers to join him in opposing “dark money” in elections. “I think it pollutes our system,” he said.
Nonetheless, the bill was approved by the state House in a 33-25 vote.
Meanwhile, in Tempe, an ordinance that prevented secret contributions in local elections was approved by more than 90 percent of the city’s electorate.
Last month, when HB2153 was under consideration in the state Senate, Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Tempe, noted, "I don't know of any one of us in this room that got 91 percent of the vote.”
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said lawmakers should be paying more attention to voters. "They are the ones who are supposed to be our bosses,” he said, “not the people who are spending millions of dollars in our campaigns.”
Steve Farley, D-Tucson, pointing out that lawmakers are not allowed to cast legislative votes in secret, condemned the Legislature’s attempt to keep secret the identities of donors who contribute to local political campaigns.
"If someone takes part in the political process, it should be something that takes part in the public,” Farley said. "That transparency and accountability is the foundation of democracy. If we make laws in private, if our political process takes place in private, if we don't know who's giving the money, then who's going to trust the bills and laws we come up with here?”
While secret contributions should not be allowed in any campaigns for elected office, the Legislature and governor’s choice to allow such “dark money” to pollute, as Campbell has said, local elections is particularly repugnant. Cities and counties are the governments with which citizens interact most. Cities and counties are the governments that citizens have the greatest opportunity to influence, and local governments most immediately impact our lives and community.
What’s more, even in nonpartisan local elections, these are the elections in which political parties typically build their bench of candidates for other elections.
For all of these reasons, this loss of transparency in contributions to political campaigns is bad news.
****Editor’s Note – This editorial first appeared in The Daily Courier on Thursday, April 5, with the headline 'Bring election funding into the light.' The editorial has been updated to reflect the state Senate’s approval of HB2153 and the governor’s signature on the measure this week, when the new law became effective. Due to the immediate impact of the law, locally and statewide, the editorial has been revised.