Rash of GOP bills seek to empower lawmakers, disempower voters

Arizona Republican legislators have a habit of pushing ideas that make their own lives easier, but harder for voters to have their voices heard.

Story by Ben Giles, Arizona Capitol Times

Critics say the GOP-led efforts are a consolidation of legislative authority, designed to fend off an increasingly independent and incensed electorate in a state that’s becoming slightly more competitive every two years.

Some examples include legislation like SB1023, which would allow legislative candidates to identify fewer of those individuals who make financial contributions to their campaigns, leaving voters in the dark about who’s influencing elections.

And Republicans are also leading an effort to quash a movement in Tempe to reveal the sources of “dark money” in local elections. It’s a GOP bid to keep campaign dollars spent by groups that don’t disclose the source of their money a secret.

And there are more.

Arizona is no stranger to bills that are criticized as a power struggle between lawmakers and voters, but Zachary Smith, a regents professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University, said this year’s wave of legislation is unprecedented.

“In 30 years of watching the Arizona Legislature, I’ve never seen such blatant attempts to empower the Legislature and disempower the voters, and that’s taking all of these things into consideration,” Smith said.

Republican lawmakers say there’s no concerted effort to undermine voters, and make the case for bills on an individual basis as good for Arizona and good for their constituents. But on some issues, their policy positions contradict popular public opinion.

Rivko Knox, a volunteer lobbyist with the League of Women Voters, recalled one legislative hearing this year on a bill with dozens of speakers signed in to oppose, and minimal support, but still, a lawmaker claimed the measure was widely backed.

The “request to speak” system is by no means a definitive arbiter of public opinion. Still, in the face of overwhelming opposition at the hearing, “the legislator said, ‘That’s not what I hear in my district,’” Knox said.

If that’s the case, she said, “to what extent you’re really representing your district, I don’t know.”

Power retention

In some ways, Knox sees Republican efforts to consolidate power in the Legislature as instinctual, albeit a tactic that shies away from transparency and shows a disrespect for the public, she said.

“To some extent it’s almost a natural reaction, in the sense that one body wants to retain power,” she said.

Those bodies, the Republican-dominated Arizona Senate and House of Representatives, are frustrating lobbyists like Knox and Joel Edman, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network.

“Instead of having huge debates on how we can get more money into classrooms, and how we can take care of the families that don’t have reliable access to health care, that we’re trying to figure out, can we raise the salaries of legislators, can we make it so we don’t have to run for re-election so often, can we make it so we can hide some of our campaign contributions?” Edman said. “It’s a really sort of twisted view of the priorities.”

There is in fact an effort to dramatically increase legislative salaries, though such a pay hike would require a vote of the people, and Arizonans haven’t been keen on rewarding lawmakers with a raise for years.

Arizonans may also be asked whether they want senators and representatives to serve four-year terms, rather than two years. The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Drew John, R-Safford, would halve the number of elections in which legislators must campaign, a boon for institutional knowledge, some argue. Even Edman and Knox see the benefits of such a proposal.

And yet, HCR2006 finds a way to make legislators’ lives even more easy because legislative elections would only be held every four years during midterm elections, when voter turnout is at its lowest and campaigns are dominated by the most passionate, and arguably far-right and -left, of each party, Edman said.

“That means that some segment of voters who show up just for presidential years aren’t going to have their voices heard at all – they’re basically irrelevant as far as the state Capitol is concerned. And so that’s a whole segment of voters that are taken out of the process,” he said.

Should they vote every year? Sure, Edman said. But as long as they don’t, fewer elections should at least be held at a time when more voters are likely to cast ballots, he said.

Initiatives

Edman and Knox speculate that avoiding voters might be the underlying goal. For example, it has become routine for Republicans to sponsor bills that chip away at the initiative process, by which voters can bypass the Legislature and pass laws on their own, or even block laws the Legislature approved.

Proposition 206, a citizens initiative to raise the minimum wage that voters approved in 2016, seems to have accelerated those efforts, Edman said.

“Certainly it brought on all these attacks on the initiative process, but I think folks down here, and I think in particular a couple of powerful interests groups like the (Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry) who were used to getting their way saw they can’t always get their way with the electorate,” he said. “So let’s see if they can again find a way to make the electorate less important in how the state runs things.”

That feeling is also reflected in efforts like HCR2022. Sponsored by Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, the resolution would ask voters to give up their right to elect partisan candidates in primary elections for the U.S. Senate. Instead, legislators from the Republican and Democratic parties would select two nominees each whose names would appear on the General Election ballot.

When the resolution was approved by a House committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, Republican representatives said the measure will better serve the state by ensuring U.S. senators are acting in the best interest of the state.

“That to me is such a blatant way of saying, ‘We ought to control what’s going on. We want senators that are dependent on us,’ as if the legislators are the people of the state, and they’re not,” Knox said.

Some don’t pan out

The sponsors of resolutions like HCR 2022 are often criticized for not having their finger on the pulse of the electorate. Rep. Bob Thorpe, the Flagstaff Republican who has sponsored several bills to draw the fire of progressive and nonpartisan interest groups alike, said he knows exactly what he’s doing – it’s what his voters want.

Not all constituents may like it, but Thorpe said he’s doing right by his Legislative District 6.

Sometimes that means pitching bills that don’t pan out. Thorpe said he sponsored HCR2014, the resolution to block independents from voting in partisan primaries, because a voter in his district asked him to. But he backed off the idea after consulting with state Republican leaders, who weren’t in favor of the idea.

Thorpe said most bills come from ideas from constituents. There’s nothing nefarious going on, as if Republican lawmakers are plotting with one another about ways to undermine the will of the voters.

“We are all free agents down here, and it’s very rare that as we’re crafting bill ideas that we’re having conversations with members. … I think what you might be suggesting and other people might be suggesting is there’s a collaborative effort to push the agenda in a certain direction,” Thorpe said. “We don’t even have right now a majority plan in place, where the majority has decided we’re going to be pushing A, B and C.”

For Thorpe, the best way to represent the voters of his district is to push for what he philosophically believes is in the best interest of the state of Arizona.

Take the minimum wage issue as an example.

Thorpe argued that such a high minimum wage – Arizona’s now stands at $10.50 per hour, but will increase to $12 by 2020 – is bad for businesses and ultimately hurts the residents it’s trying to help. So he supports efforts to freeze the minimum wage at its current rate and undo paid-leave protections for employees that were approved by voters less than 18 months ago.

Initiatives like Prop. 206 that increased the minimum wage get in the way of Thorpe’s view of a representative form of government.

“People elect us to come down here and the Legislature to write laws,” he said. “So when you have a bill, whether it’s well intentioned or not, a referendum, it basically steps on our toes as the Legislature.”

Stepping on toes or not, Prop. 206 passed with little opposition. Roughly 58 percent of voters approved the minimum wage hike across the state, and in Thorpe’s LD6, the proposition passed with more than 57 percent of the vote, according to an analysis prepared for Arizona Wins, a progressive advocacy group.

So how does Thorpe reconcile supporting a measure to undo something that voters in his district supported?

“I look at my constituents. When I go before the people in northern Arizona, I’m thanked for the job I’m doing,” he said.

And if he keeps getting elected, that must mean there’s at least some voters in LD6 who approve of what he’s doing, like undermining the minimum wage initiative.

“Any election, (voters) have the opportunity to get rid of me and to elect someone else. I’m coming up for re-election now, and they have that opportunity to do so,” Thorpe said. “So if I’m not doing what they want me to do, they’ll replace me.”

Ignoring the popular vote

Smith, the NAU professor, said there are many factors that create an environment where a lawmaker like Thorpe can ignore the popular vote in his district. Lawmakers are listening to some, but not all, of their constituents, he said.

As far as having their finger on the pulse of the electorate, it’s a valid criticism, Smith said, “but see, they don’t have to, because they only have to have 51 percent of the people that vote in the Republican primary in their district, and most of those guys know it.”

Smith said that Republicans in charge of the state right now are “enriched and empowered by forces that weren’t in play in the past” – particularly anonymous campaign expenditures like the ones Tempe wants to shine a light on, but Republican legislators want to keep in the, well, dark.

The financial influence of anonymous political spending stretches from the highest office in the state – Gov. Doug Ducey was the beneficiary of $8.2 million in dark money during the 2014 election — to some legislative races.

On the bright side, Smith noted that many of these legislative efforts are dead or dying.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, is killing SB1023, which would shield some campaign contributor s from exposure, in the face of opposition, including some from his own party. A Thorpe bill to exempt communications on personal devices from the public record never passed a committee hearing.

But bills like the dark money ban pre-emption and an effort to overhaul Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission are alive and will likely be approved along party-line votes. Progressives like Edman are hopeful that the changing demographics of the state will alter that reality.

Some see a not-too-distant future where that might be the case.

In a committee hearing on the resolution to undermine the voter-approved minimum wage hike, Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, warned his GOP colleagues that a wave is coming in the form of a young, educated, and arguably angry voter fed up with legislators who don’t listen to the people.
Smith isn’t so sure.

“You know if you’re a Republican sitting in a safe district, you can do just about anything,” he said. “Is there gonna be a backlash? Yeah, I think some of these things are going to be a bit too far. Is the backlash gonna extend to throwing people out of office? No.”