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Arizona legislators back new measures to restrict initiatives

Posted 3/5/21

PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers acted Thursday to erect two new hurdles in the path of individuals and groups seeking to craft their own laws.

With only Republicans in support, the House …

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Arizona legislators back new measures to restrict initiatives


PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers acted Thursday to erect two new hurdles in the path of individuals and groups seeking to craft their own laws.

With only Republicans in support, the House approved a constitutional amendment to preclude future initiatives from being enacted unless at least 55% of those who turned out voted in support. It would override the existing requirement for a simple majority.

That proposal, at least, would require voters themselves to agree to the new hurdle. As a constitutional change it would have to be ratified in 2022.

But another measure given preliminary approval by the Senate has no such voter buy-in.

It would require that for all future initiatives a circulator would have to either read aloud the 100-word description on each ballot measure or give the person sufficient time to read it.

More to the point, each signer would have to affirm that he or she has actually understood the description. And the signatures of anyone who does not read or hear the description would be struck.

That requirement would exist — and signatures would be disallowed — even if the signer already were familiar with what the initiative petition seeks. More to the point, it could provide a new way for initiative foes to bring court challenges to keep measures off the ballot.

The proposal for the super-majority margin for initiatives comes from Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma.

He said the higher hurdle is appropriate because a constitutional provision precludes lawmakers from repealing or altering anything once it's approved at the ballot. The only exceptions are when the changes "further the purpose'' of the original measure, and only with a three-fourths vote.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, reminded him the Voter Protection Act exists is because state lawmakers voted in 1997 to override a 1996 initiative to legalize the medical use of marijuana. That led to a new initiative, approved by voters in 1998, to keep that from happening again.

She said the reason individuals and groups go to the street with initiative drives is because the Republican-controlled legislature has failed to act on things that people want.

That most recent includes Proposition 208, the 2020 measure which imposes a 3.5% surcharge on incomes above $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples. Opposed by the business community, it passed with 52.5% of the vote, a margin that, had HCR 2016 been in effect, would have resulted in its defeat.

Legal challenges to that law continue, with the Arizona Supreme Court on Thursday agreeing to review a lower court ruling that said the tax can remain in effect while its constitutionality is being litigated.

Salman also said Arizona has a minimum wage higher than the federal $7.25 an hour and guaranteed family leave — both also opposed by business interests — only because voters in 2006 and 2016 took the issue into their own hands.

"The business community, specifically, does not like that they can't control the will of the voters like they can control the will of previous state legislative bodies,'' she said.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

Senate Bill 1531, which deals with initiative signatures, is being pushed by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler. He said it is designed to ensure  circulators accurately characterize the measures they are trying to get people to put on the ballot.

"People, unfortunately, will just lie to you about what it is they're suggesting the initiative is about,'' Mesnard said.

The proposal drew derision from Sen. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, who called the concept "paternalistic.''

She pointed out the Arizona Constitution specifically gives people the same status and the same right as the legislature to make laws. Yet the measure spells out that each initiative signer must avow they have read and understood the measure or their signatures are voided by the circulator.

"Before we cast aspersions on voters on whether or not they understand what they're voting on, let's look at ourselves,'' Sen. Engel said.

"We pass bills in here that are 300 pages long,'' she said. "Have we read every page of that bill?''

Sen. Engel said perhaps voters should turn around and make lawmakers affirm that you read every single line of that bill and you understood it.''

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, offered an amendment to apply the same standard to candidate nominating petitions.

He said if Republicans are so interested in ensuring voters know what they are signing, they should require circulators to tell signers where the candidate lives, which office the candidate seeks and in which district the candidate resides. Sen. Mendez said there is a bigger problem with those circulating those petitions who have no idea who they are trying to get on the ballot.

Sen. Mesnard said that's a different situation.

This measure needs a final Senate vote before going to the House.