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Arizona campaign finance law throws twist at candidates

PHOENIX -- An election law change that raised Arizona's campaign contribution limits also provided candidates with an unwanted and apparently unintended surprise.

That surprise is new wording that the Secretary of State's Office said requires candidates to have separate campaign finance committees for the primary and general election elections, the Arizona Capitol Times reported.

Combined with a $2,000 limit on transfers between committees, the requirement means candidates may have to commit their campaign dollars to one election or the other without yet knowing what the political landscape will look like months ahead.

The Secretary of State's Office provided candidates and others with guidance about the requirement in a memo issued just hours after the new law took effect Sept. 13.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the separate-committee requirement isn't what he had in mind when he sponsored the legislation.

The situation is "definitely a nightmare," he said.

Under the guidance on what the law means, candidates who have campaign war chests in a committee must now be designated as either for a primary or general election campaign, but not both.

Messnard said that wasn't the intent of the legislation, but Secretary of State's Office spokesman Matt Roberts said intent doesn't matter when the law's language is clear.

Election attorney Lee Miller agreed that intent doesn't matter when the law's wording is clear.

"The Legislature is not about common sense," Miller said. "The Legislature is about words on paper and trying to put words on paper in a way that they have but one meaning and no alternative meaning."

Parts of the office's guidance contradict an Aug. 27 opinion by the state Attorney General's Office. The opinion said establishing two committees is preferred but not required. The opinion also said candidates may spend general election contributions in the primary as long as they are within the contribution limits.

However, the Attorney General's Office is re-evaluating its opinion, spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said. "If we feel it is appropriate, we will amend our opinion or provide additional analysis."

The Secretary of State's Office's guidance and opinions by the Attorney General's Office are legally nonbinding, but many candidates and consultants are following the guidance to be on the safe side.

Election attorney Kory Langhofer said the law requiring a campaign committee for each election doesn't necessarily say a separate committee is needed.

"It can't possibly mean this," Langhofer said.

Mesnard said he will likely introduce new legislation in 2014 to ensure that candidates don't have to file separate committees, can transfer money freely between their primary and general election accounts, and don't have to designate their pre-existing campaign cash as being solely for one election or the other.

But for now, some candidates are wondering whether they should designate the bulk of their war chests for use in the primary election or in the general election.

"It's like wagering a bet -- where do I think I'm going to have an opposition?" said state Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat who has about $15,000 in his campaign account from 2012.

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