The U.S. Supreme Court derailed a key part of Arizona's campaign finance system on Tuesday by at least temporarily blocking extra money for publicly funded candidates outspent by privately financed rivals or targeted by independent groups' spending.
The court said in a brief order that it will prevent the state from using its system of so-called matching funds at least until the justices decide whether to hear the full appeal of opponents of the key provision of the state's campaign funding system.
Distribution of matching funds was to start June 22, but it could be the fall before the court decides even whether to accept the case. Arizona's primary election is Aug. 24.
Publicly funded candidates get matching funds when they're outspent by privately funded rivals or targeted by independent groups' spending.
Critics contend matching funds chill free-speech rights of privately financed candidates and their contributors by inhibiting fundraising and spending.
"Arizona will be able to have its first elections in 10 years without having the government place its thumb on the scales in favor of publicly financed candidates," said Bill Maurer, an Institute for Justice attorney helping represent opponents of matching funds.
State officials defend matching funds, saying they help combat contributions-for-favors corruption and encourage more people to run for office. Also, blocking matching funds would be disruptive to candidates already committed to running with public funding, officials argued.
"I'm deeply surprised that they would take this action in the middle of the election," said Todd Lang, executive director of Arizona's public campaign finance system.
Lower courts split on whether matching funds are constitutional. Two other states, Connecticut and Maine, have similar provisions in their public campaign finance systems.
The case was eagerly watched by candidates in Arizona for states offices from governor to legislative seats because the blocking of matching funds opens the door for privately financed candidates to dramatically outspend publicly funded rivals.
In the Republican primary for governor, wealthy businessman Buz Mills' largely self-funded campaign has already spent more than three times' the amount of public funding provided incumbent Jan Brewer.
Gubernatorial candidates running with public funding get a basic allotment of $707,000 for the primary and were also eligible for up to $1.4 million — two times the basic allotment — in matching funds. Publicly funded candidates for down-ballot offices get smaller amounts of basic funding and also are eligible for corresponding amounts of matching funds.
Nearly half of the state-office candidates who qualified to run in the primary were running with public funding. Candidates qualify by collecting $5 contributions from voters, the number depending on the office sought.
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed from Washington.
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