Arizona has been called “Ground Zero” for dark money donors wanting to have their way with our legislators and political system.  Arizona leads the nation in the amount of undisclosed money flooding into states to affect election outcomes… and it’s not even close.

Thomas Collins, executive director of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, stated that dark money spenders took advantage of confusing post-Citizens United legislation which ended oversight of non-profit groups’ political spending. This legislative move resulted in an insane increase in dark money spending in Arizona… an increase of nearly 300 times – from $35,005 in 2006 to $10,338,298 in 2014, according to the 2016 Brennen Center report on Secret Spending.

In the report, former Republican Representatives Chris Herstam stated, “In my 33 years in Arizona politics and government, dark money is the most corrupting influence I have seen… While dark money gets a lot of national publicity, it is having a monstrous effect in Arizona.”

Guess who benefitted from about half that $10 million? Our current governor.  Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic reported that those newly lax nonprofit laws hid the fact that five independent campaigns working for Ducey were all being funded by the notorious billionaire Koch Brothers to the tune of $5.2 million.

But this wasn’t good enough for Governor Ducey. In 2016, he pushed for and signed SB1516, a law which rewrote and deregulated our entire campaign finance system, made it easier to cheat candidate campaign finance limits; and, most significantly, eliminated the state’s ability to investigate and enforce our campaign finance laws.  Ducey claimed that these dirty money forces had First Amendment rights to spend whatever they want to get their candidates elected without anybody knowing about it.

Undermining public schools

In Arizona, dark money has been pounding away at our public school system for years now. The Koch Brothers weaseled their way into an Arizona citizen’s initiative, Proposition 204, two years earlier (under the guise of the Dirty Money group named Americans for Responsible Leadership (ARL). This group funded more than half the advertising to block a citizens’ ballot initiative to maintain a one-cent-per-dollar sales tax that helped fund Arizona’s public schools. Our public schools are still reeling and suffering from severe funding issues.

The dark money infestation peaked in 2017 when then-Senator Debbie Lesko sponsored a bill created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Koch Brothers’ legislation drafting group, to divert millions of dollars away from public education.  This bill, SB1431, would have universally expanded a voucher system in Arizona (now known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts – since vouchers were ruled unconstitutional).  This would have resulted in taxpayer money earmarked for public schools being diverted into private, parochial or home schools — with little to no accountability or oversight.

From this atrocity, Save Our Schools Arizona was born. A grassroots movement hit the streets and gathered more than 111,000 signatures in 90 days to put the bill on hold and put the issue on the ballot. No sooner had the petitions been turned over to our Secretary of State when dozens of lawyers from Betsy DeVos’s American Federation of Children came swooping in to legally challenge everything SOS Arizona had accomplished.

It was proof that powerful, out-of-state billionaires were trying to influence what happened in our state despite the will of the people. Luckily, they lost and what turned into Proposition 305 was overwhelmingly defeated. This is a very rare example of the people winning. It usually isn’t the case.

Dark Money and Arizona Public Service

Most often, the causes and candidates backed by dirty money contributions win.  Way too often. Which brings us to Arizona Public Service Company, better known as APS.  The powerful utility company is currently under the microscope for its dark money dealings.

The 2016 Brennen Center report on Secret Spending noted that a shift in Arizona’s energy policy away from industry sources to homeowner-generated solar led to an exponential surge of dark money in Corporation Commission races. In 2014, a reported $3 million of undisclosed money was spent on negative attack ads against Democratic candidates – 50 times more than in the 2012 races.

One of the victims was Democrat Sandra Kennedy.  APS would neither confirm nor deny its involvement in the races. However, Kennedy ran again and won a seat on the Corporation Commission in 2018.  With backing from other Commissioners, she subpoenaed APS to hand over records of their contributions. Records show that APS contributed $10.7 million to influence races for seats on the Commission responsible for overseeing them.  All parties involved pointed to the previously mentioned campaign finance laws that made what they were doing legal, ethics be damned.

Many believe that this is a one-sided problem dominated by conservative groups and being fought by liberals. But it’s not anymore. As the amount of Dark Money spent on elections since the Citizens United decision approaches the $1 billion mark, liberal groups are catching up. In fact, during the 2018 mid-term election, liberal groups outspent conservative groups – 54% to 31%, according to a study based on data by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Elections and published in Issue One – a cross-partisan political reform group. So everyone is getting into the act. And we, the citizens are the losers.

Outlaw Dirty Money

So, needless to say, the situation is getting out of hand. Money is playing a significant part in every election. And it’s going to only be worse during the 2020 election.  Something significant needs to happen that can return us to sanity in our political system. Since Citizens United is here to stay, we cannot stop the influx of donations the wealthy and powerful can contribute. But we can at least shine a light on the darkness and clean up some of the dirty influences that our muddying our elections.

In Arizona, a grassroots movement has begun to address this issue. Outlaw Dirty Money is a citizens’ initiative that establishes that Arizona voters have a right to know who is spending to influence our elections.  It is asking for an amendment to the state constitution to require that donations of $5,000 or more during an election cycle must be disclosed by the receiving organization, back to the original source.

So, no more misleading, cute and helpful sounding names:

  • Americans for Responsible Leadership will have to be disclosed as Koch Brothers.
  • Arizona Free Enterprise Club and Save Our Future Now will have to be disclosed as APS.
  • Majority Forward (the previously mentioned liberal group) will have to be disclosed as labor groups, education groups, and environmental groups.
  • Governor Ducey would have to disclose that Pinnacle West (APS’s parent company) was behind those pro-education ads that flooded our TVs during the gubernatorial primary and not an informed education coalition (Arizona Education Project).

In other words, they’d have to tell the truth.

We can have cleaner, clearer elections.  We can have a more informed group of citizens. Informed voters make the best and most involved citizens. Arizona cities can follow Phoenix’s example.  Its new law will increase transparency in Phoenix elections.  Tempe passed a similar law (by a 9 to 1 margin).

It’s up to us now. Our legislators won’t put an amendment like this on the ballot, so we have to. Go to to get involved. It’s easy. It’s non-partisan. If you’ve never volunteered before, this is the place to start. Registered voters who are mad at the Koch Brothers and APS can sign the petition. People mad at George Soros and Tom Steyer can sign. It’s all good as long as they’re registered to vote. So, help us restore some economic justice to Arizona.  Get some petitions and get some signatures.  With 356,467 valid signatures, Outlaw Dirty Money gets on the ballot. Then the voters decide.