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New PAC-Man Game Still Gobbles Up Legislators

Proposition 200 is a bust, no matter what you hear.
Two weeks ago, the head of Arizonans for Campaign Ethics called a press conference to claim that the contribution limits enacted by voters in 1986 kept down the cost of last year's legislative races. That was followed closely by a press release from Arizona Common Cause, which helped draft and push Prop 200, declaring victory over the forces of darkness represented by political-action committees.

It's true the direct cost of a successful legislative race decreased by 20 percent last year compared with 1986. And it's also true that PAC contributions to candidates are down a whopping 65 percent.

But to suggest, as both groups did, that Prop 200 is helping to break the grip of special-interest groups on lawmakers is fantasy.

In the bad old days before Prop 200, the ninety successful candidates for the legislature spent an average of about $24,400. This past year, according to Common Cause, the average dropped to about $19,500.

Dick Mahoney, director of Arizonans for Campaign Ethics, says this reduction is a direct result of limits on what candidates can accept from PACs. And, his reasoning goes, when a lawmaker receives less money from a special-interest group, he or she will not be as beholden.

But even Mahoney admits his analysis is flawed.
Prop 200, which took effect after the 1986 elections, limited most PACs to contributions of $200 per legislative candidate. Some larger PACs could give up to $1,000. And the candidates themselves could accept only $5,000 overall from PACs. But the special-interest groups simply changed their tactics.

Take the Arizona Education Association. It was not unusual for the teachers' union to make contributions of several thousand dollars to each candidate it supported. With that ruled out under Prop 200, the union literally took matters into its own hands by going directly to voters. During the last election the AEA spent nearly $49,000 on "independent campaigns" for candidates, much of that in the form of brochures mailed to district residents. (Voters didn't know the literature they were getting in the mail was paid for by the union: It bore only the imprint of "Citizens for Excellence in Education and Government," the high-sounding name the AEA PAC gave to itself.)

The union got away with the spending because nothing in Prop 200 prohibits independent campaigns. In fact, constitutional protection of free speech stops the state from limiting what any group wants to spend on its own to elect--or defeat--a candidate. It's a loophole that can't be closed.

The business community also got into the act. The Arizona, Phoenix, and Tucson chambers of commerce banded together and spent more than $33,000 on behalf of candidates with hotly contested races in eight legislative districts. And the Phoenix chamber spent another $13,000 on its own to help elect lawmakers in five Phoenix districts.

The phone company, traditionally another major player, also got busy. The PAC for US West Communications put together a $25,600 effort for candidates.

And then there's Arizona '88, which spent about $150,000. Officially, this PAC was funded by the state Democratic Party. But the party got its money from other special-interest groups and individuals associated with them, such as the $30,000 kicked in by Dan Salcito, a member of the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association.

The trial lawyers' PAC spent about $9,000 to help candidates. And the lawyers' nemesis, the Arizona Medical Association, spent nearly $6,000 to help several of its own favorites over the hump. (That was in addition to another $85,000 the doctors' PAC reported spending last year, most of that in direct aid to candidates.)

But the real spending by doctors and lawyers was far greater.
Prop 200 allows individuals to give up to $200 to legislative candidates. A spouse can give an additional $200. Dana Larsen, director of Common Cause, says the overall limits on PAC contributions coupled with caps on individuals' donations forces candidates to rely on small donors. That, he says, diminishes the sway of special-interest groups. But the reality is that special interests still are giving large amounts to candidates. They're just delivering it differently.

Consider the Republican primary race for the District 26 Senate seat. Incumbent Peter Kay was the favorite of the trial lawyers because he opposed many of the perennial efforts to limit jury awards. Kay's single voice was particularly important to the lawyers because he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, through which all changes in the civil justice system must pass.

And the lawyers thought Kay was better than the alternative. Republican challenger Tom Patterson, the eventual winner, not only supported liability limits but was a doctor himself.

A look at Kay's report would not reveal that lawyers' support--not a dime of the nearly $16,000 he spent in the primary came from the trial lawyers' PAC. But an analysis of the individuals who kicked in cash shows that about $4,650 came from trial lawyers. (Arizona law does not require campaign donors to list their occupations. Someone trying to analyze how much support Kay received from the lawyers would have to know who belongs to the organization.)

As it turned out, the lawyers couldn't hold a candle to the doctors.
Patterson reported he spent more than $36,000 in the primary against Kay. His overall campaign--including a general election race with Democrat Deborah Linzer--rang up at more than $62,000. His report shows he took the maximum $5,000 allowed from PACs, including $1,000 from the Arizona Medical Association, identical amounts from organizations representing the dentists and the ophthalmologists, and $200 each from the orthopedic surgeons and the osteopaths.

But out of the $57,000-plus he was gathering from individuals--and supposedly not getting from special-interest groups--more than $45,000 can be traced directly to doctors or their spouses.

Theoretically, Prop 200 prevents "bundling" of contributions by prohibiting a lobbyist or representative from a group from gathering up a bunch of checks for a candidate and delivering them together. But the doctors got around this by having Patterson appoint some of them to his campaign finance committee. That authorized them to collect checks on his behalf. Patterson calls this practice "just a convenience," saying the more than 350 doctors who contributed could just as easily have sent him their checks individually.

Patterson acknowledges playing to the medical community for funds. "They felt they were underrepresented in the [legislative] process," he says. "And I exploited it." One of his ploys was to send fund-raising letters directly to doctors asking them for dollars to defeat Kay.

The doctors' investment paid off early: In his first term, Patterson authored--and is pushing through the legislature--a constitutional amendment to allow limits to be placed on what doctors have to pay out when a patient is injured or dies.

"Clearly, he has good standing with them," is all Mahoney can respond when told about the analysis of the source of Patterson's funding. And Mahoney does not question that candidates know which organizations support them, even if they are no longer getting a single large check. But he insists there is a difference between a candidate getting money directly from a PAC and getting it instead from the PAC's members.

(Mahoney's self-styled role as guardian of elections has another beneficiary: Dick Mahoney. He admits he is "thinking about" running for secretary of state next year.)

Larsen also insists that Prop 200 is working. "The problem is one of disclosure," he says, pointing out that Common Cause wants the law amended to require that the occupation of contributors be listed. But that won't limit what the doctors or any other group can give. And it won't always help observers find the source of the money. Many of the contributions to Patterson came not from doctors themselves but from their spouses, many of whom would list "none" as their occupation. That's true, Larsen agrees, adding that "it's going to take some more digging" for the public to find out who is funding campaigns.

Larsen's claim that public disclosure of the source of campaign funds is the answer is a fascinating bit of historical revisionism. Before Prop 200 there was public disclosure, with each candidate listing what he or she received from each PAC, and each PAC required to list what it gave to each candidate. That made it easy for the public to find out who wanted whom elected. Prop 200 didn't solve a problem, it drove the problem underground.

To suggest that Prop 200 is helping to break the grip of special-interest groups on lawmakers is fantasy.

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Howard Fischer