Evangelical group plays key role in ballot propositions
Published: October 26, 2012 at 8:49 am
It is actively supporting a ballot referral to change the way judges are selected, arguing the courts often have the final say on important policies that deal with marriage, family and religious liberties.
But in taking a prominent position against two other ballot measures, the group seems to have deviated from its core mission — to pass and defend socially conservative legislation.
On the surface, the two ballot proposals that the center is opposing have nothing to do with socially conservative policies, such as restricting abortion or protecting religious conscience.
Proposition 204 seeks to keep a temporary 1-cent tax increase and earmark the bulk of its revenues to schools.
Proposition 121, meanwhile, will overhaul the state’s primary election system, replacing it with one where the top two vote-getters, regardless of their party affiliation, advance to the general election.
But the center contends that Prop. 204 contains a provision that is vague and could be exploited, allowing abortion providers to get some of the money from the 1-cent tax or even directly funding abortion services.
The center also said Prop. 121 is confusing, will make elections more expensive and will limit voters’ choice by allowing two candidates from the same party to compete in the general election.
But critics surmised that the center is really trying to preserve its gains and protect its political interests, postulating the “top-two” initiative could adversely affect the pro-life group’s ability to pass socially conservative proposals at the state Capitol.
Critics also said the center’s rationale for opposing the 1-cent tax is a stretch, and the group is allying itself with politicians who have contributed to its success, especially in the past few years.
Some speculated that the center’s opposition isn’t really that surprising. They said the Evangelical Christian lobby has been fighting for private education vouchers and getting tax dollars to flow to parochial schools, and putting money into public schools contravenes its goals.
Cathi Herrod, the center’s president and its chief lobbyist, said the critics are wrong.
Just as the center evaluates bills that lawmakers introduce each year, her group scrutinized the ballot measures on the November ballot and found flaws that would affect matters important to the group. That compelled her organization to take a stand, Herrod said.
“This becomes laughable. It sounds like some people are upset that the Center for Arizona Policy takes positions on propositions. It’s not the first time we’ve taken positions on propositions,” Herrod said, lamenting that some choose to ascribe motivations to the pro-life group.
The center came late to the debate over the 1-cent tax. But given its reach and clout, it could have a profound impact on how Evangelical Christians vote this November.
Perhaps more worrisome for the measure’s supporters, the center’s opposition could help the “no” campaign win the public relations war.
The No New Taxes, No on 204 campaign has been relentless in portraying the initiative as a measure that is riddled with loopholes that would be virtually impossible to undo if approved at the ballot box This is where the center’s opposition becomes crucial, said Kurt Davis, a Republican strategist.
“It helps prove the overreaching narrative that you have a sloppily written initiative,” Davis said.
That’s bad news for the “yes” campaign because voters are always wary about potential mistakes in a ballot initiative, he said.
Herrod said the center’s opposition to the top-two proposition, which includes loaning its communications director to the anti-Prop. 121 Save Our Vote committee, is simply a matter of supporting voter education and voter choice.
But to advocates of Prop. 121, the center’s opposition is a matter of clout. Supporters say the top-two initiative will elect more moderates and force candidates to appeal to voters in the political center.
Former Sen. Carolyn Allen said the center views that as a direct threat to its stellar legislative record.
Allen, a moderate Republican who frequently clashed with the center during her 16-year legislative career, said GOP lawmakers are afraid to oppose the group. The gradual rightward tilt of the Republican caucus at the Legislature has only strengthened the already influential organization, she said.
“The people that are in the Legislature here have really gone into her pocket,” said Allen, an original member of the coalition that formed in 2011 to put Prop. 121 on the ballot. “And the idea that this would in some way dilute her power, I can see why she would be nervous about that, because she really has the Republican Party in the Legislature by the throat. I mean, they are scared to death of her.”
Allen said she doesn’t know whether fewer pro-CAP social conservatives would be elected under a top-two system. But she said Republicans would be less afraid of the group’s displeasure because they would no longer be beholden to the small base of Republican primary voters it holds sway with.
The Center for Arizona Policy doesn’t endorse candidates. But it does mail out a voter guide every year that includes responses from all candidates based on their answers to the center’s election questionnaire.
“They will have to re-evaluate how they’re going to operate and who they’re going to threaten,” Allen said.
Paul Johnson, chairman of the Open Government Committee that put the measure on the ballot, said the center will still be able to influence legislation under a top-two system. But it’ll only be able to do so, he said, if it’s willing to compromise.
“Cathi Herrod has had a very, very cozy relationship with nine people or 10 people in the Legislature that has given her control over the 30 districts. If I were her, I would probably be in the position she’s in,” said Johnson, the former mayor of Phoenix. “I don’t honestly think this is an issue Christ would have opined on. But nonetheless, I do understand power.”
Johnson, however, questioned whether Herrod would be able to adjust.
“Candidly, if you’re Cathi Herrod, she should probably take the position she’s taking, because I think she would have a very difficult time working with people who don’t agree with her 100 percent,” he said.
Herrod said CAP’s opposition to Prop. 121 isn’t about protecting the group’s influence at the Legislature. It’s about the center’s longstanding commitment to voter education.
“Our organization typically hasn’t gotten involved in election-type issues. But this Prop. 121 specifically really limits voter choice, and we’re concerned about equipping voters, educating voters on where candidates stand on the issues,” Herrod said.
Indeed, this isn’t the first time CAP has weighed in on a ballot measure that would affect Arizona’s election system. In 2010, the group supported Proposition 112, which would have established an earlier deadline for submitting signature petitions for initiatives and referendums, giving county election officials more time to process and count signatures. The center’s 2010 voter guide noted that there wasn’t enough time for legal challenges after the signatures were counted.
Another of the center’s interests is voter choice, Herrod said. Under the top-two proposal, third-party candidates and independents would be virtually eliminated from general election ballots, she said. Even Democrats and Republicans could be shut out in some races if the top two vote-getters are from the same party.
Herrod said Allen’s claims about protecting CAP’s clout are completely off the mark.
“We oppose Prop. 121 because, in our view, it limits voter choice. We believe that voter choice is best served by a general election ballot that includes people of multiple parties, including independents,” she said. “I don’t venture guesses on what impact it would have. We’re looking at it on its face — does it limit voter choice?”
Some of the center’s biggest allies in the Legislature declined to say whether Prop. 121 would curb the group’s influence.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, said she didn’t know whether a top-two system would elect fewer social conservatives. “I think time would only tell,’’ she said.
Lesko said she opposes Prop. 121 because it would deceive voters by changing the way candidates list their party affiliation — candidates would be able to put down whatever affiliation they want, up to 20 characters — and give them fewer choices in the general election.
Driving Herrod’s fears about Prop. 204 is one paragraph in the initiative that contains less than 40 words and defines how $100 million set aside annually for welfare programs may be used.
It says “basic needs” include fighting hunger, homelessness and domestic violence and providing for child care and other community and social services that “lead to family stability and self-sufficiency.”
But the center said the terms “family stability” and “self- sufficiency” aren’t defined, raising the possibility that funds from the tax could be exploited by a pro-abortion governor.
“If this language were not in Prop. 204, (we) would have remained neutral,” Herrod told the Arizona Capitol Times.
“It could be defined by a governor to suit virtually anything,” she said.
But George Cunningham, a former state budget director and one of Prop. 204’s drafters, said Herrod is misreading it.
Cunningham, a Democrat, said the drafters deliberately omitted any mention of health services, particularly women’s health, in the paragraph. They wrote the “Human Services Self-sufficiency Fund” with a specific goal in mind — to restore funding for programs run by the Department of Economic Security that were slashed by lawmakers, he said.
The fund falls under the rubric of “human services” and has nothing to do with abortion, he said.
Indeed, the provision amends a law that deals with the powers of the governor and not with health services or abortion.
Theresa Ulmer, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, called Herrod’s assertion a stretch.
“I’m continually surprised at the stretch that Cathi Herrod will make to pull Planned Parenthood into some evil scheme that’s trying to take over the world,” she said.
“There’s no secret agenda, and that’s the frustrating part,” she said.
Consultant Joe Yuhas of the firm Riester, which works for the Prop. 121 and Prop. 204 campaigns, agreed that the abortion argument is a stretch.
“Attempting to make the case that somehow 204 is going to fund abortions is like saying the Department of Transportation is building highways that lead to women’s health clinics. It’s bizarre,” he said.
Allen said Herrod “seems to find the devil under every tree.”
Herrod said there’s a legitimate reason to fear that Planned Parenthood could take advantage of the initiative’s supposed vagueness, asserting that the group did it before by qualifying for the state’s “working poor” tax credit program.
The program allows for a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions to charity organizations that serve low-income households, ill or disabled children or residents who receive temporary welfare assistance.
“A couple of years ago, we learned that donations to Planned Parenthood were qualifying for Arizona’s working poor tax credit. So that’s example No. 1,” Herrod said, adding it took two sessions to exclude abortion providers from the program.
But Dan Pochoda, an attorney with local American Civil Liberties Union, said Herrod’s assertion is baseless. He said Planned Parenthood was eligible from the start and qualified for years.
“It wasn’t like they were in any way twisting the intent or language of the tax credit as it was originally written,” he said.
“It was CAP that determined, based obviously on their ideology, that they did not want them (Planned Parenthood) to be able to take advantage of even these private contributions,” Pochoda said.
Like Cunningham, Pochoda also dismissed the center’s allegation that Prop. 204 funds could go to abortion providers or even pay for the service. The ACLU lawyer said the state policy prohibiting public funds from going to pay for an abortion is clear.
“You will never get any court that will allow an interpretation of vague language to overcome clear mandates from the state government, no matter how ill-advised they are,” he said.
“That’s just a non-argument. It’s looking for ways to defeat this (measure) I’m sure for other reasons,” he said.
The center’s critics cited two theories to explain why they believe the prolife group is wading into the Prop. 204 debate. One theory says the center is currying favor with lawmakers and ensuring easy access to the Capitol.
The other says the group is simply opposed to more funding for public schools.
“They’re so anti-public education,” said Sen. Paula Aboud, a Tucson Democrat who is gay and an outspoken critic of the center.
“It feels to me like they’re cooking up an argument to stop the proposition and making it about abortion, but what they really want is they don’t want to fund public education,” she said.
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, said the center is trying to solidify its “hold” on lawmakers by siding with them.
Herrod rejected both allegations, pointing out that her group didn’t take a position on Prop 100, which put a temporary 1-cent tax increase on the books two years ago. That tax will expire next year.
“This is not about school choice. This is not about financing a public school. I take issue with people ascribing motives to us that absolutely are false,” she said, adding, both allegations are a “joke.”