Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Supreme Court skeptical about Arizona’s campaign finance law

The Supreme Court majority that in recent years has struck down campaign spending restrictions as assaults on free speech seemed ready Monday to do the same with Arizona’s public financing plan.

Under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. , the court’s conservative majority has declared unconstitutional major portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act. And the court’s loosening of spending constraints on corporations and unions in last year’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission roiled the midterm elections.

“Do you think it would be a fair characterization of this law to say that its purpose and its effect are to produce less speech in political campaigns?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked the lawyer for groups challenging Arizona’s Citizens Clean Elections Act.

“I believe that that is a goal, and I believe that’s the effect,” answered William R. Maurer, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, which represented independent groups objecting to the law’s restrictions.

The case raises a new issue for the court. After a wave of political corruption in the state capital, Arizona voters in 1998 approved a public financing system for statewide and legislative candidates. It grants qualified candidates an initial sum and then provides “matching funds” based on the spending of their privately financed opponents who spend more. Candidates also are granted money if an independent group spends against them or for their opponents.

Maurer told the court that the case was governed by a 2008 Supreme Court decision, in which the court by a 5 to 4 vote struck down the “millionaire’s amendment” in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act. That provision allowed a congressional candidate to raise money in excess of contribution limits if his or her opponent was spending large sums of personal wealth.

The Arizona law similarly burdens a privately funded candidate, Maurer said, because it turns “my act of speaking into the vehicle by which my political opponents benefit with direct government subsidies.”

Maurer received strong resistance from Justice Elena Kagan. She had argued the Citizens United case as President Obama’s solicitor general and was on the losing side of the court’s 5 to 4 decision.

Kagan challenged Maurer’s contention that the purpose of Arizona’s law was to level the electoral playing field — something the court has said is not sufficient for restricting political spending and speech — rather than to combat corruption.

“That’s what the purpose of all public financing systems are,” Kagan said. She added that for 40 years such systems “have been based upon the idea that when there is a lot of private money floating around the political system, that candidates and then public officeholders get beholden to various people who are giving that money and make actions based on how much they receive from those people.”

Kagan’s support of campaign finance restrictions seemed as strong as that of the justice she replaced, John Paul Stevens. But that does not change the balance on the court.

The justices who have voted to strike down spending restrictions sharply questioned Bradley S. Phillips, a Los Angeles lawyer representing Arizona, after his opening statement that the law results “in more speech and more electoral competition and directly furthers the government’s compelling interest in combating real and apparent corruption in politics.”

Roberts, who did not ask Maurer a question, seemed particularly concerned that the law seemed to discourage spending by independent expenditure groups. “If you knew that a $10,000 expenditure that you would make that would support a candidate would result in $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, depending on how many opposition candidates there were available for them, wouldn’t you think twice about it?” Roberts asked.

“I think thinking twice is not a severe burden,” Phillips responded.

“Well, if you’re thinking twice and one way you’re thinking is not to do it, that sounds like a sufficient burden,” Roberts replied.

Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. also disputed the idea that the goal of the act was not to level the playing field. It even says so on the election commission’s Web site, Roberts said.

The Obama administration is supporting Arizona, and Assistant Solicitor General William M. Jay told Roberts that whatever is written on a Web site “isn’t dispositive of what the voters of Arizona had in mind when they passed this initiative.”

Jay also said that while publicly funded candidates are subjected to a ceiling on their spending, privately funded candidates and independent groups have no such limit.

The court in 1976 held that public financing of campaigns did not violate the Constitution, and Maurer said the challenge of the Arizona law went only to the matching funds portion. A handful of other states have similar laws.

A decision in the combined cases of Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett and McComish v. Bennett will come sometime before the court adjourns at the end of June.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

State HFAs Urge Congress To Protect and Support Vital Federal Housing Programs, Launch Faces of Home Campaig

Life -changing stories of working families benefiting from a range of federal housing programs will be at the forefront of this week’s annual Legislative Conference of the National Council of State Housing Agencies (NCSHA).

The Faces of Home campaign illustrates the “life-changing impact HFA programs have across the spectrum of housing need, from making first-time homeownership possible for working families, to developing affordable rental housing in partnership with the private sector, to providing safety net rental assistance for the most vulnerable among us,” said Barbara Thompson, executive director of NCSHA.

“These success stories, along with the hard facts on the country’s scarce supply of affordable housing, are what HFAs will carry with them as they petition Congress this week to support and protect the vital federal housing programs HFAs administer.”

Consider the situation of 71-year-old Jennie, who lost her home to foreclosure after her husband of 38 years passed away and she couldn’t afford the payments on her own. “I didn’t want to leave, but I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “I didn’t know what would happen to me. I was afraid I would end up homeless.” But Jennie was one of the lucky ones. Her children helped her find an affordable apartment at Bethel Ridge Estates, a development for seniors that was financed with Low Income Housing Tax Credits issued by the Missouri Housing Development Commission.

In the desert Southwest, Marjorie Delgarito and her family were living in a small trailer with no running water or electricity on the Navajo Nation when she heard about a new apartment complex being built nearby. “We [used to have] five five-gallon jugs of water we hauled into the house for washing and bathing,” Marjorie said. “We gathered and chopped wood for heat. The kids had to hurry and finish their homework outside before dark.” The family now lives in the Chaco River Apartments, one of the first rental housing developments ever to be built on the Navajo Nation. The New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority financed the development in part with HOME funds. “The kids…are all on the honor roll now,” Marjorie said. “We are very happy.”

In Florida, Tamela Nelloms, a working mother of three who grew up in public housing as one of nine siblings, never thought her homeownership dreams would come true. She didn’t know anyone who had ever bought a home and had no idea how the process worked. Now, thanks to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation and its federal housing bond-supported low-cost mortgage program, Tamela is a proud first-time homebuyer with a monthly payment well within her economic means. “I wanted my kids to have what I didn’t,” Tamela said. “My boys will grow up knowing that anything in life is possible. This home has changed all of our lives.” (These and other stories of transformation are available on NCSHA’s official Faces of Home website at www.ncsha.org/faces-of-home.)

Thompson stressed that future funding levels and tax incentives for a wide range of housing programs could all be in jeopardy as Congress debates cuts in the current federal budget and considers tax reform, the future of the housing finance system, and long-term deficit reduction strategies.

“Housing Bonds, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, HOME, and Section 8 are time-tested programs that effectively provide affordable housing around the country,” said Thompson. “HFAs have successfully administered these programs for decades, and nothing demonstrates the importance of that work like the powerful stories of transformation and hope chronicled in the Faces of Home campaign.”

The Faces of Home web exhibit features stories of people from every state who have received housing help from their HFA. Stories are searchable by state or by program, and offer a glimpse into the larger story of the integral role HFAs play in affordable housing, and why that role matters so very much—to the people whose lives are changed, the communities they live in, and to the economy.

HFAs are state-chartered housing agencies that operate in every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Though they vary widely in their characteristics, including their relationship to state government, HFAs have in common their public purpose mission to provide affordable housing to the people of their states who need it.

NCSHA is a national, nonprofit organization created by state HFAs to assist them in increasing housing opportunities for lower income and underserved people through the financing, development, and preservation of affordable housing.

About 200 HFA leaders are expected to meet with members of Congress during NCSHA’s three-day Legislative Conference.