With the election season now in full-swing, all across the country an overwhelming volume of dark money is flooding the political landscape. These millions are the limitless, political contributions (thanks to Citizens United), funneled anonymously through non-profits(501c4s) which allow individuals, groups and corporations to hide their agendas and special interests from the rest of us. It is a “perfect storm” for political favors and corruption. And thanks to Senate Bill 1516, which Governor Doug Ducey signed into law last spring, Arizona is considered “ground zero” in dark money’s destructive path.
Even before SB 1516 was passed, our elected officials were already beholden to secret interests. In the 2014 gubernatorial primary and general election, dark money groups spent $20 million dollars. According to the Center for Public Integrity, 40% of that “dark money” went to Gov.Doug Ducey. They ran ads against his fellow republicans in the primary and against Fred Duval in the general.
Dark money has a direct influence on what elected officials do once they are in office. According to published reports, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, one of two Koch brother organizations headed by Ducey’s Chief of Staff lobbied heavily for the budget provision that would directly allocate $5 million a year to the three Koch-connected academic centers. Ducey became the darling of dark money when he was Arizona State Treasurer and chair for the “NO on 100” ballot measure.
In that same election, $3.2 million “dark” dollars were spent on securing two seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission. According to the Arizona Republic, it’s widely believed that this dark money came from Arizona Public Service. As for legislative races that year, the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting found that $1.3 million dollars were spent by dark money groups.
SB 1516, has been dubbed by non-partisan watchdogs as “Citizens United on Steroids.” While Citizens United paved the way for limitless corporate donations, it did not guarantee anonymity. SB1516 now paves the way for limitless unaccountability.
Already in this year’s election, American Federation for Children (AFC), which supports candidates
who support the privatization of public education, has spent $218,000. According to the Arizona Republic AFC is targeting Arizona in 2016, funneling money to candidates who will expand the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA). These accounts are an aggressive attempt to take money from our public schools. With the passing of SB1516, it will be harder and harder to track who is trying to undermine Arizona public education.
Here are three more ways SB1516 will keep Arizona voters in the dark and encourage more “pay to play” government:
1.) Loosens the reporting requirements for tax-exempt advocacy groups, and doubles the amount they can spend on ballot measures.
2.) Adds further layers of protection for organizations trying to influence elections which keeps us from knowing who is funding a specific candidate.
3.) Allows donors to throw lavish fundraisers with drinks, food, entertainment etc., without having to declare these expenses as contributions.
According to the Arizona Republic, Gov. Ducey believes “SB 1516 should broaden political participation.” One can only assume he is referring to the participation of billionaires like the Koch brothers who have already shunted a fortune` into Arizona to shore up their extreme, conservative views.
Last spring, two separate citizen groups came forward to fight for clean and fair political participation. One group was gathering signatures for the Arizona Clean and Accountable Election Act which would’ve required increased disclosure of all secret money, as well as limits on special interest. Unfortunately, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce mounted a campaign that killed our chance to vote for fair elections this fall. The second group, Stop Corruption Now called for a repeal of SB1516, but wasn’t to able to gather enough signatures in time to put the referendum on the ballot.
Before the passage of SB1516, Progress Now Arizona did a poll and found that 70% of all voters did not support the bill and would not support politicians who did. Still the majority of elected officials chose to ignore the will of the people.
The 2016 election cycle Pima County voters can play a part in pushing back the corrupting influence of dark money. We can support the candidates who have supported us, not special interests. In our county, one lone Republican, Jonathan “Chris” Ackerley, voted against SB1516, along with almost every incumbent Democrat: David Bradley, Carmen Cajero-Bedford, Andrea Dalessandro, Steve Farley, Randy Friese, Rosana Gabaldon, Matt Kopec, Stephanie Mach, and Macario Saldate.
Going forward, we will need bipartisan support for real election reform. The stakes are high. As former Republican lawmaker, Chris Herstam told the press not long ago, “Without meaningful and timely disclosure laws, the dark money will forever negatively impact our political landscape.”
In the November 8th general election, let’s make it clear to the powers that be up at the Capitol that they are there to do the Peoples business. Do not vote for legislators who supported this SB1516. The Grand Canyon State is not now, and never will be for sale!
From Robin Hiller, executive director of Voices for Education. Molly McKasson former city council member.
The views expressed above are ours and do not reflect the organization’s views.