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Clean Elections consolidation bill advances

PHOENIX -- The Citizen's Clean Election Commission would be consolidated with the Arizona Secretary of State's office and take on added responsibilities for overseeing election law violations and lobbyist reporting under a bill approved by a Senate committee Tuesday.

The proposal approved by the Appropriations Committee would allow the voter-created commission to still do its work independently but add some responsibilities and bring operational efficiencies, Secretary of State Ken Bennett said. The bill also would restore a so-called ``tax checkoff'' included in the law creating the commission that was eliminated by the Legislature last year.

The bill would require any extra money the commission has to be turned over to Bennett's office to help pay for replacing election equipment. The state needs millions of dollars to buy new voting equipment in the coming years.

``We're not trying to change anything about what works well in the commission, which are many, many things,'' Bennett said. ``What we're trying to do is create some synergies, create some funding mechanisms for the monies to help improve the elections systems as a whole, which is consistent with what the voters originally passed when they created the commission.''

Bennett and commission executive director Todd Lang said the merger will strengthen the commission's role by adding oversight of lobbyists and other election laws to its current campaign finance oversight. It also would eliminate problems that have occurred when competing candidates hold powerful elected office. For example, Bennett's office now refers elections law issues to the Attorney General's Office, creating a potential conflict if that person is subject to a probe.

The non-partisan, five-member Commission created by voters in 1998 provides funding for state office candidates who agree to forego private financing. It was intended to increase participation and voter confidence in the election system and elected officials, Lang said.

``And this would allow us to enforce all the lobbying, all articles of election law and financial disclosure with that non-partisan commission,'' Lang said. ``I think that builds voter confidence. At the same time it allows us to upgrade election equipment that's really important to Mr. Bennett and the Secretary of State's office.''

The Commission is a regular target of opponents in the Legislature, who dispute that and say public money should be used for campaigns and have tried to have it eliminated. Proponents contend that public campaign funding reduces the influence of special interests in elections and government.

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