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House passes two more bills tightening citizen-initiative laws

Voting in flat style

Republican state lawmakers on Thursday agreed to impose two new sets of restrictions on initiatives that foes said in combination with already-approved measures will effectively deny the ability of voters to ever again propose their own laws.

SB 1236, approved by the House on a 35-23 party-line vote, would make the committee pushing a ballot measure financially responsible for any acts of fraud or forgery committed by anyone who is paid to gather signatures for the initiative. Those fines would be $1,000 for each violation.

That measure still needs final Senate approval.

Separately, the House gave give final approval to a Senate-passed bill to require that initiatives be in “strict compliance” with election laws to get on the ballot. That change in HB 2244, which now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey for his anticipated signature after the 34-23 vote, would overturn prior rulings of the Arizona Supreme Court which have concluded that initiatives may be placed before voters if they are in “substantial compliance” with the law.

The actions came after Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, urged colleagues to tread lightly.

“We have before us one of the gravest decisions we will ever make here, and that is whether to effectively shut down the initiative process for all but those, the richest interests, inside and out of the state,” he said. And Clark said that those imposing the new restrictions now may at some point in the future be sorry when they want to put something before voters, like extending the 0.6-cent sales tax that helps fund education, a levy that will otherwise self-destruct in 2020.

But House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the changes in initiative laws are not only appropriate but actually required. He said the Arizona Constitution directs lawmakers to enact measures dealing with voter registration “and other laws to secure the purity of elections and guard against abuses of the elective franchise.”

These two changes come just weeks after Ducey signed a third restriction, this one to outlaw what had been the widely used practice of paying petition circulators based on the number of signatures they gather. What that leaves is the more expensive method of paying people by the hour.

The timing of the three bills is not coincidence.

Arizonans have had the right of initiative since the first days of statehood.

These come on the heels of voters who last fall approved increasing the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour — $12 by 2020 — and mandating that employers provide workers at least three days off a year for sick time. That came over objections of business interests.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce then tried to have the initiative voided by the courts. And Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, said when that failed, the businesses turned to their allies at the Capitol.

“The people have not asked for this,” she said. “It is the Chamber.”

That’s not just rhetoric: Chamber President Glenn Hamer sent out an email earlier this week saying new restrictions on initiatives are part of the “to-do list” for lawmakers.

Rep. Ray Martinez, D-Phoenix, was more blunt, saying the initiative process is being altered because public support for higher wages made a lot of people angry.

Mesnard said the changes are necessary because a 1998 constitutional amendment keeps them from overturning what voters have approved. “There is no room for error,” he said.

Repealing that would require taking the issue back to voters, something the Republican-controlled legislature has so far been unwilling to do. Instead, SB 1236 mandates that every piece of print advertising and fundraising solicitations for future initiatives must disclose that if the measure is approved it cannot be changed by the legislature except by a three-fourths vote and, even then, only if the amendment “furthers the purpose” of the underlying measure.

Clark said that language is designed to provide a disincentive to people supporting the initiative. And he also contends it’s illegal, amounting to compelling initiative backers to use their resources to advance an argument against their own interests.

But it is that penalty on initiative organizers that Clark said will chill the desire of most groups to propose future ballot measures.

Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said the penalty is appropriate.

“As the committee chair, it is my responsibility as the chairperson of that referendum or initiative committee to make sure that the committee is doing their proper work and they are not committing cases of fraud or forgery,” she said. “And you do that by properly training your paid circulators.”

Anyway, Carter said, it’s not like the idea of holding the organization financially responsible for the acts of people it pays is so unusual, “just as if I were as a business owner.”

Blanc separately lashed out against Republicans for adopting the requirement for initiative circulators to be in “strict compliance” with election laws but not imposing doing the same for their own candidate petitions.

“There’s a level of hypocrisy that I just can’t understand,” she said.

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