The Daily Agenda: Finance rules keep Tucson voters in the dark
We won't get a clear picture of campaign contributions until too late ... Prop 411 money was ungodly ... Polishing the dump doesn't work.
If the goal of campaign finance rules is to keep voters from knowing who finances campaigns, then they’re doing a bang-up job.
It’s hard not to think that’s the point of the rules when you’re holding a ballot for a primary election and you have no idea who funded the candidates’ campaigns. That’s the case for about 200,000 Tucsonans who received a ballot in the mail last week for the August 1 primary elections.
The information we have right now is so stale it’s pretty much useless. The most recent campaign finance reports cover the period ending April 29. In other words, they cover the time when candidates say “Hey, I’m going to run, will you give me some money for my campaign?” But they don’t cover the time when they actually get most of their money.
We won’t really know who funded candidates’ campaigns until July 17 at the earliest, when candidates for mayor and three city council seats are supposed to file reports with the city showing who gave them money in May and June, or basically the heart of the primary campaign season. And that’s assuming the candidates file their reports on time — not doing so carries very little penalty.
Most voters tend to return their ballots within a week or two, so it’s likely the primary election will be mostly over before anybody has a good picture of campaign finances. In a Democrat-dominated town like Tucson, the candidates chosen on August 1 are likely going to be the ones taking office next year.
It doesn’t help that in 2019 the state Legislature moved primary elections from the end of August to the first Tuesday in August, without changing the deadlines for reporting campaign contributions. When a primary is in late August, then a July 17 deadline is no problem. That’s plenty of time for reporters and curious citizens to dig through records before most voters have returned their ballots.
But with the primary on August 1 and the reporting deadline of July 17, we end up flying blind.
There’s an easy fix: Under state law, candidates are required to file a pre-election finance report “not later than ten days before the election.” Just scratch out the words “the election” and replace them with “ballots are mailed to voters.”
We’re no fans of keeping voters in the dark, so we went through campaign finance archives maintained by the City Clerk’s Office to see how bad it could get.
The most egregious example we found had to do with last year’s Prop 411, a ballot measure to extend a sales tax worth $740 million for road repair over the next decade.
When ballots were sent out in late April 2022, the most up-to-date campaign finance report showed the main supporters of Prop 411, a political action committee called Tucsonans for Better, Safer Streets, had raised about $27,500, as Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller noted at the time.
“(The PAC is) run by Ian McDowell, a vice president at Sundt Construction — a company that could win contracts if Proposition 411 passes — as well as former Ward 3 councilmember Karin Uhlich,” Steller wrote.
There was no way for voters, or reporters, to know that the actual total was 15 times that amount. Organizations, some of which stood to benefit financially if Prop 411 passed, donated $415,000 to the PAC in the leadup to the May 17, 2022 election, as its July 15 finance report revealed two months after the election was over.
Nearly all of it came from large donations and was used to buy online ads and mailers from companies in California and Washington, D.C. More than half of that money, $216,000, came from a group called Arizona for All.
Here’s the picture that paints for us: A lot of powerful organizations waited until after the deadline that would allow voters to know they were making donations. Then they pumped a ton of money into the election and paid out-of-state companies to bombard Tucson voters with ads so voters would support spending $750 million that would benefit those organizations.
Maybe that picture is spot on. Or maybe we’re completely misreading why those organizations made those donations and when. But that’s not the point. The point is voters should know about it before they cast their ballots.
One step closer: Pima County supervisors approved the signature collection for a proposed ballot measure that would make Vail its own town, the Arizona Daily Star’s Nicole Ludden reports. Backers now have until August 8 to collect valid signatures from more than 1,500 registered voters in Vail in order for the incorporation question to make it onto the November ballot.
Ward 2 showdown: The Arizona Luminaria’s Teressa Enriquez breaks down the Ward 2 city council Democratic primary between incumbent Paul Cunningham and challenger Lisa Nutt. Cunningham is seeking his fourth re-election to the Ward 2 seat after being appointed to the council in 2010. He has never faced a Democratic primary challenger, despite getting into trouble for repeatedly sexually harassing employees early in his tenure. This is Nutt’s first time running for public office, but she’s been active in civic life and public policy advocacy for decades, through emails, texting, voting and meeting with Phoenix and Washington D.C. lawmakers.
From hotel to housing: The City of Tucson has purchased an old Miracle Mile motel to convert into a shelter with an additional apartment complex to be built on the property, according to the Arizona Daily Star’s Gabriela Rico. The city purchased the 30-unit Amazon Motel for $2.6 million, thanks to a $6.1 million grant from the Arizona Department of Housing. The motel rooms will be rehabbed into studios and the city plans to add on-site support services for residents.
With $2.6 million, the Tucson Agenda could operate as a multi-person operation for a decade or more. We need about 5% of that to be sustainable for the next year. Help us get there!
Election equity will have to wait: An effort to enact ward-only city council elections in Tucson was rejected by the city clerk’s office, after thousands of petition sheets were found to be improperly filled out, Jim Nintzel writes in the Tucson Sentinel. Supporters of the Tucson Election Equality Act turned in what they estimated to be 17,650 signatures last week, but once city officials removed invalid petitions, there were found to be only 14,513 signatures — a few hundred shy of the necessary threshold of 14,826. Supporters could still file a lawsuit to try to reverse the city’s decision, but that’s probably a longshot.
A trashy situation: The Tucson Sentinel’s Daniel Shailer provides an update on the Los Reales Sustainability Campus, a rebranding of the city’s only municipal landfill that was implemented two years ago to help the city meet its goal of stopping half of Tucson’s garbage from going into the landfill by 2030. But some local advocates say doesn’t do enough to address the root cause of Tucson’s waste problem and that changes are taking too long. Carlos De La Torre, director of the city’s Environmental and General Services Department, said the biggest change in two years has been the sign at the entrance.
“I think it’s going at the right pace,” De La Torre said. But will Tucson get to the zero-waste future promised? “We’re behind on that,” he admitted. “Yeah, we’re not as advanced as we should be.”
Casita competition: The City of Tucson has been awarded an AARP 2023 Community Challenge grant to launch an accessory dwelling unit design competition, Ward 1 Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz announced in her newsletter. Selected designs will be featured in Tucson’s Casita Model Plan Catalog. Santa Cruz said the grant represents a significant milestone to bolster ADUs and specifically address the needs of older adults and multigenerational families. Guidelines for the competition, rules for submission and criteria for review of proposals will be released in July.
Moving on: Six-term Pima County Treasurer Beth Ford is ready to retire and won’t be seeking reelection, Nintzel reports. Ford, a Republican, has held the office since 2000 and modernized many aspects of the office during her tenure. Ford's chief deputy, former GOP state lawmaker Chris Ackerley, plans to run for the office with Ford saying she recruited Ackerley away from a career in teaching about a year ago to join the office, in the hopes that she could ensure he’d be ready for the job.
"I was a recovering politician," Ackerley said. "I mean, obviously, I have an interest in public policy and public service."
Investing in nonprofits: The Nogales City Council voted to allocate $100,000 to two local nonprofits: the Nogales-Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority, according to the Nogales International’s Angela Gervasi. The city eliminated funding to the groups in the 2019/20 fiscal year, citing rising costs for employee health insurance and a decline in sales tax revenue. Each nonprofit will receive $50,000 in the new fiscal year, with four other organizations vying for an additional $50,000 in funding.
Voter turnout is really, really bad in Tucson. With three city council seats up for grabs, voter turnout in the 2021 primary election was 28.7% for Democrats and 9.5% for Republicans.