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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

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7/27/2010 8:20:00 AM
Court ruling paves way for Arizona business interests to influence elections

Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Taking advantage of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, some Arizona business interests are lining up to find way to directly influence elections.

Filings with the Secretary of State's Office show that the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry has formed a new entity to collect corporate funds and use them to support candidates of its choosing. So has the Arizona Home Builders Association, Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife and several individual companies.

The moves come six months after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out legal limits on corporate and union spending to influence elections. The justices, in a 5-4 decision, said these entities have the same First Amendment rights to spend their money to help elect candidates as individuals.

While the case dealt with federal campaign laws, it automatically invalidated similar Arizona statutes.

State lawmakers reacted by approving a framework that specifically permits such donations. But it requires the business and labor interests to publicly set up the campaign committees through which they intend to funnel their cash.

It still leaves in place existing prohibitions against either unions or corporations giving money directly to candidates. Instead, these special interests have to make their case to the public separately -- and not in coordination with any candidate.

But the law mandates that TV commercials, newspaper advertising, mailers and other campaign materials disclose who is paying for it.

Glenn Hamer, president of the state chamber, said he sees the new group as a way of building a coalition of interests to push for common goals.

One is convincing lawmakers to approve a package of tax cuts aimed at stimulating the economy. The other is getting legislators to put a question on the 2012 ballot asking voters to repeal public financing of elections.

Both proposals fell short last session.

Hamer said the funds raised -- there is no money in the account now -- would be used to elect candidates who support those goals and to defeat those who oppose them.

But the chamber isn't the only group looking at the new law as a way to shape the outcome of elections. The Home Builders Association of Central Arizona also has created its own committee to make independent expenditures on candidate races.

But Connie Wilhelm, the organization's president, said it remains to be seen exactly how active this new committee will be.

One issue is related to the disclosure: Any commercials or other materials would have to declare that the money comes from home builders. And she conceded that putting that designation on advertising won't always get a favorable response.

"It's not smart strategy to try to help somebody and then your name, by being on the piece, hurts them," Wilhelm said. "You have to be very careful."

Wilhelm said her organization is going to be careful in wading into this new area of trying to influence elections. She said the law and all its requirements for reporting and disclosure are new and untested, with potential pitfalls for business interests that do not follow them to the letter.

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