Laurie Roberts: Who are the dark money forces increasingly trying to buy our elections? Arizona voters may soon have the chance to demand disclosure.
For years, we’ve waited for Arizona’s leaders to step up for Arizona’s voters, to embrace the fundamental concept that we deserve to know who is trying to buy this state’s elections.
For years, we’ve watched as Arizona’s leaders not only refused to demand transparency in campaign spending but actually passed a law making it even easier for cloaked interests to anonymously spend millions of dollars to get us to vote a certain way.
Now, a pair of longtime political players are preparing to launch a citizens’ initiative aimed at yanking open the blackout curtains that have left us unable to see what’s really going on in this state.
Why they're calling it 'dirty money'
The proposed constitutional amendment – called the Outlaw Dirty Money initiative – would require the public disclosure of major donors to the dark-money campaigns that have become a staple of Arizona politics.
Bob Grossfeld, a Democratic consultant who is putting together the initiative with former Attorney General Terry Goddard, prefers to call it dirty, rather than dark, money.
“This is dirty money,” he told me. “It is handled almost exactly the way criminal syndicates do money laundering. It’s passed from one committee or group or non-profit to another and to another, the whole purpose of which is to hide who’s behind it.”
Arizona has become ground zero for "dark money" maneuvers since the Supreme Court in 2010 decreed that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they want on political campaigns.
The court didn’t say they had a First Amendment right to hide their campaign spending, but that’s what has happened in Arizona, where our leaders believe that secrecy trumps transparency.
Voters must know source of this cash
In all, more than $15 million was spent by secret interests to sway Arizona voters during our last statewide elections in 2014.
Ducey was elected that year with nearly $3.5 million in support from six dark-money groups set up as non-profit corporations. We would later find out from IRS records that five of those dark-money non-profits in turn got funds that year from the sixth – American Encore, which has ties to the Charles and David Koch network of conservative/libertarian billionaires.
And you wonder why Ducey has pushed for private prisons, universal vouchers and annual corporate tax cuts even as our roads crumble and schools struggle? And oh yeah, a new state law that will actually allow more dark money spending in next year’s elections?
Meanwhile, a $3.2 million dark-money campaign that same year catapulted a pair of utility friendly candidates onto the Arizona Corporation Commission. It’s widely believed that Arizona Public Service was behind the dark-money campaign. But, of course, voters aren’t entitled to know that.
And you wonder why the Corporation Commission just raised your utility rates, allowing APS to scoop up another $95 million a year?
It might have useful to voters to know where all that secret money was coming from before they cast their ballots, don’t you think?
What the initiative would do
Goddard and Grossfeld’s initiative would require disclosure of anyone who contributes $10,000 or more to a state or local campaign. Grossfeld said their proposal would require disclosure of the original source of the money, rather than just the last group through which it was laundered.
“People have a right to know the identities of those who seek to influence the outcome of our elections,” he told me.
He’s right, of course. But getting that question before voters will be a daunting task. They’ll have to collect the valid signatures of 225,963 Arizona voters by July 5 in order to get on the November 2018 ballot.
Grossfeld says it’ll be an all-volunteer effort, something that a year ago I would have said would doom their campaign.
That was then, when conventional wisdom said you had to pay petition circulators in order collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. When conventional wisdom said that average citizens just won't do the work it takes to make their voices heard.
This is now, when we’ve seen the impact that committed volunteers can have on their state. Exhibit A: This year’s successful referendum by Save Our Schools Arizona, giving voters the last word on our leaders' expanded voucher law.
A group of citizens stood up and said, not so fast to the powers that be in this state (and the powers behind them.)
It seems only natural then, that it should be citizens who stand up and say we want to know who is spending millions to buy our elections.
And once we know who, it should be pretty easy to find out why.