The chorus of lawmakers calling for an overhaul of the Voter Protection Act quieted to a low murmur in 2011, but supporters say the dormant issue will be back on the Legislature’s agenda next year.
Several Republican legislators said they will revive their plans to change Proposition 105, the 1998 ballot measure that strictly limits the Legislature’s ability to tamper with voter-approved measures. Legislative wins on a pair of big-ticket ballot measures, along with a standard informal agreement to steer clear of referenda in non-election years, helped keep the issue on the shelf.
But advocates like Rep. David Stevens, who sponsored a Prop. 105 reform measure in 2010, plan to put the issue back on the agenda next year.
“It didn’t die. Part of that was such a quick session we got through. But it’s definitely on the front lobal areas of our minds. I think you’ll hear a lot more about 105 next year,” Stevens, a Sierra Vista Republican, said.
The protections Prop. 105 added to the Arizona Constitution affect every voter-approved ballot measure since 1998, including 2000 initiatives that expanded public health care rolls and required annual increases in funding for public education. The Voter Protection Act prohibits lawmakers from amending laws enacted or amended through an initiative or referendum unless the changes further the purpose of the voter-approved measure. In addition, those changes must receive approval of at least three-fourths of the members of each house of the Legislature.
In the 2011 session, Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, introduced HCR2029, which would have required voter reauthorization every six years for ballot measures that spend state money. The measure included a provision requiring financial and performance audits of ballot measures that are up for reauthorization.
Crandell is planning to push a similar measure in 2012. He expects it to fare better than it did this year when HCR2029 wasn’t even assigned to a committee. He said voter mandates on education and health care will ensure that the Voter Protection Act remains an issue at the Capitol, and claimed the support of House Speaker Andy Tobin and Senate President Russell Pearce.
Crandell also demonstrated some lingering Republican resentment over two failed ballot measures that would have swept voter-protected funds in last year’s election. Voters chose to protect the First Things First and Growing Smarter programs — which would have infused about $400 million into the general fund — but Crandell said they weren’t properly informed about the issues.
The audits included in his proposal would do just that.
“I think there’s a lot of propositions out there that have lost their usefulness, and we have some big pots of money sitting there that are not being used for anything,” Crandell said. “There was no recommendation. There was nothing. The people, I don’t think, really have a total understanding of how the funds are being used.”
Arizona has a famously transient population and saw massive growth over the past decade. Stevens said many current Arizona residents didn’t vote on some of the big-spending ballot measures, and should have an opportunity to decide their future.
“We’re growing so large, nearly half the state didn’t get an opportunity to vote on Clean Elections in 1998, and I think if they’re going to be helping pay for some of these (programs) they ought to have an opportunity to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on some of them,” he said.
Another reauthorization plan fell barely short in 2010, when it failed by just two votes in the Senate on the final day of the session. Stevens’ HCR2041 passed the House but lost 14-11 in Senate after then-Senate President Bob Burns voted against the measure and three other Republicans were absent from the vote.
The reauthorization proposal is just one of several schools of thought on how to overhaul Prop. 105. Some, including Rep. John Kavanagh, have proposed temporary suspensions while the state grapples with its ongoing budget crisis. Others would rather see it repealed outright.
But Prop. 105 was a voter-approved constitutional amendment and any reform measure must pass muster at the polls. Kavanagh said voters aren’t willing to pass most of the proposals that are floating around.
Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican, said he’s personally less interested in sponsoring Prop. 105 reform next year — he introduced a temporary suspension in 2010 — because he doesn’t believe voters would approve it. He said he still strongly supports the issue and would like to see voter-approved measures go back to the ballot for reauthorization every six or seven years, but isn’t optimistic.
“I think the Legislature would very much like to do it. I personally think it would be good law, because times change. But I don’t see the will of the people to remove their protection,” he said.
Other factors may have diminished interest in Prop. 105 reform.
Republican lawmakers and Gov. Jan Brewer believe they have found a loophole that allows them to cut public health care rolls, despite a 2000 citizen initiative that mandated coverage for anyone earning up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level. The state won a lawsuit last year over Proposition 301, a voter mandate on education funding.
And a 2004 ballot measure requiring that voter-approved spending programs include dedicated funding sources prevents future initiatives from becoming a drain on the general fund.
When Brewer took office in 2009 amid the worst budget crisis in state history, she said one of the keys to solving the fiscal impasse was to alter Prop. 105. The governor included Prop. 105 reform in her “five-point plan” and several GOP lawmakers introduced resolutions that would have referred their reform proposals to the ballot. But the governor has since dropped all public references to the issue, and didn’t include it in the extensive multiyear agenda she released in January.
“We haven’t really given that much thought,” Brewer said regarding her current position on Prop. 105 reform.
Kavanagh said voters’ narrow approval in 2010 of a medical marijuana initiative that is being heavily scrutinized by the feds shows that Prop. 105 reform is still needed, even if interest has died down. Ironically, it was the Legislature’s rejection of another voter-approved medical marijuana law in 1997 that helped spur the Voter Protection Act in the first place.
After the Legislature overturned the 1996 medical marijuana initiative, which voters approved overwhelmingly, former Secretary of State Richard Mahoney, a Democrat, formed the Voter Protection Alliance to put Prop. 105 on the ballot. The Legislature, in turn, referred a competing measure to the ballot. Known as Proposition 104, the measure would have made it more difficult for lawmakers to alter voter-approved measures, but was far less strict than Prop. 105.
Voters gave Prop. 105 a narrow victory at the polls, but rejected Prop. 104 by about 85,000 votes.
“I think the now-obvious problems with the marijuana initiative demonstrate that the Legislature needs to be returned to its check-and-balance role with respect to initiatives,” Kavanagh said.
Democrats, who have traditionally had better luck pushing their agenda at the ballot box than at the Legislature, are largely resistant to Prop. 105 reform. House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said some changes to the Voter Protection Act might be necessary, but accused Republicans of exaggerating the need for an overhaul.
“Right now, I don’t see any need to be doing it. It’s not as big a problem as (Republicans) like to make it out to be. And, in all honesty, I don’t see there being any momentum to do it,” he said. “The voters have shown time and time again that they do not want the Legislature undermining their ability to run initiatives and protect their interests. And I don’t blame the voters for that. I would agree with them.”
A lawsuit filed against a raft of cuts to AHCCCS could be the spark that will reignite the debate over Prop. 105. Attorney Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest filed suit on May 23 against the cuts, which he argued were in violation of Prop. 204, the 2000 ballot measure that expanded Medicaid coverage.
If the lawsuit is successful, it will immediately unbalance the fiscal year 2012 budget by about $207 million. But even then, Kavanagh said he doubts voters will roll back the protections they created in 1998.
Rather than sponsor another Prop. 105 reform piece next year, Kavanagh said he plans to push a ballot measure that would return citizen initiatives to their grassroots origins by requiring at least 50 percent of petition signatures to be collected by unpaid volunteers.
“I would support (reform) but I don’t see it going anywhere, so I’ll let someone else carry that torch if they want to get burnt,” he said.