In an attempt to gain control over laws proposed by citizens, the House on Thursday night approved a package of bills designed to rein in the century-old initiative process enshrined in the Arizona Constitution at statehood.
Opponents say the moves would undercut the power of the people to shape laws, and run counter to the citizen initiative process, while proponents argue lawmakers need the flexibility to fix unforeseen problems that might arise from a ballot measure. The measures now move to the Senate for consideration.
Four bills affect the initiative process. Two ask the voters to review the 19-year-old Voter Protection Act that blocks the Legislature from changing voter initiatives; the other two make changes to the laws governing initiatives. They passed along party lines, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed, in a contentious session that lasted late into the night.
Even if the bills win Senate approval in the coming weeks, two would need voter approval in November 2018. Two others would go to Gov. Doug Ducey for his signature.
Still pending is a bill that would change the way signatures are gathered on citizen initiative petitions. House Concurrent Resolution 2029 won approval from a committee late Wednesday but was held up from a full vote over questions about its constitutionality.
Also Thursday, lawmakers rejected a bill to tighten the use of money from the state's public-campaign-finance system to prevent dollars from going to state political parties. House Bill 2403 failed because it sought to change a voter-approved law that is shielded by the Voter Protection Act. Any change would have required 40 "yes" votes, or three-fourths vote of the full House; it only mustered 35 votes.
Last fall's passage of Proposition 206 to raise the state's minimum wage intensified efforts to curb citizen initiatives. Business groups objected to the measure, but declined to mount a campaign to fight it, assuming the higher wage would have broad appeal.
The minimum-wage law, in effect since Jan. 1, is now the subject of a case before the Arizona Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry, along with other business groups, worked with Republican lawmakers to seek ways to change how petitions are gathered, resulting in House Bill 2404. On Thursday, many provisions of the bill were dropped amid concerns about its constitutionality.
In its amended form, HB 2404 primarily would ban the practice of paying petition passers for each signature gathered. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, argued the move would reduce fraud because circulators wouldn't have an incentive to boost their signature totals possibly by making up names.
Democrats saw a different motivation.
“We are telling the public: We want to make it more difficult for you to get something on the ballot,” Rep. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said as he voted "no."
Gone from the bill are earlier provisions requiring the group promoting a citizen initiative to post a bond that could run up to $50,000; a "strict compliance" requirement that could lead to petitions being tossed if the margins on the petition pages were off from state requirements by even a few millimeters; and training requirements, among others.
In other ballot-related action on Thursday, the House:
- Approved HCR 2002, sponsored by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale. This asks voters to repeal Proposition 105, a citizen-initiated measure that voters approved in 1998 and is commonly known as the Voter Protection Act. It bars lawmakers from changing any voter-approved measure unless it advances the intent of the measure and even then, requires a three-fourths vote of the 90-member Legislature. It also bars the governor from vetoing any such measure.
Republicans argued it was time to give the voters another look at the measure. It would give them a chance to show how the measure's strict terms sometimes handcuffs lawmakers and locks the state into inflexible policies.
But Democrats refused, saying the voters have spoken and distrust any attempt by the Legislature to open up the Voter Protection Act.
- Approved HCR 2007, also a Ugenti-Rita proposal. This measure, like HCR 2002, would go to the voters in November 2018. It would exempt citizen referenda from the provisions of the Voter Protection Act. That means if voters decided to overturn a law passed by the Legislature, lawmakers could go back and pass the same law — something the Voter Protection Act currently prohibits.
- Approved HB 2320, a third Ugenti-Rita proposal. This would require ballots that have a citizen initiative on them to state that if an initiative is passed, the Voter Protection Act shields it from any changes. The disclosure also would be required on the official publicity pamphlet as well as any advertising and fundraising materials associated with the ballot measure.
Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said the requirement for ads and fundraisers is ripe for a lawsuit. "Bills like this are forced political speech," he said.
- Rejected HB 2403. This bill from Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, sought to prevent a candidate running under the state's public campaign-finance system from directing any of those public funds to a political party.
The Citizens Clean Elections Commission, which runs the system, is working on internal rules to block such transfers and has argued the law is not needed.
Waiting in the wings
Still awaiting a House vote is Rep. Don Shooter's HCR 2029. Shooter, R-Yuma, proposes a further change in how petition signatures are gathered. His bill would require anyone launching a petition to acquire voter signatures from each of Arizona's 30 legislative districts to qualify for the ballot. The required number would be a percentage of people who voted for governor in the most-recent election.
Currently, the minimums are based on voters statewide, meaning they could come solely from large population centers.
Supporters, such as Shooter, say it's needed to protect a minority of voters from being overlooked by a well-funded liberal cause. Critics say the change would make it harder to qualify a measure for the ballot because a minority of districts could block it.
If lawmakers really were sincere about changing the way petition signatures are gathered, they would apply it to themselves, Doris Marie Provine of the Arizona Advocacy Network told lawmakers earlier in the week.
While Democrats bitterly fought Thursday's initiative bills, arguing voters have already spoken, Republicans said they want to get fresh eyes on the state's initiative process.
Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, noted he was 13 when the Voter Protection Act was approved in 1998. Voters spoke then, he said, but he didn't get a chance.
“What about my will as a voter?” Shope said.