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AZ Supreme Court gives citizen initiatives wide berth

The Arizona Supreme Court from left are Robert Brutinel, John Lopez, John Pelander, Scott Bales, Andrew Gould, Clint Bolick, Ann Scott Timmer.

The Arizona Supreme Court from left are Robert Brutinel, John Lopez, John Pelander, Scott Bales, Andrew Gould, Clint Bolick, Ann Scott Timmer.

The state’s high court on Aug. 2 paved the way for more wide-ranging citizen initiatives — assuming the proponents can get their issues on the ballot.

Without dissent the justices ruled that state laws which limit legislation to a single subject do not apply when the proposal comes from voters. That means initiative backers are free to propose new statutes with a full garden of ideas in a single measure, even if they are unrelated.

The justices also said that constitutional requirements for ballot measures to provide a funding source like a new tax do not apply when nothing in the proposal actually mandates new expenditures. They said the fact there might be indirect financial implications — even those lawmakers contend are necessary — is not enough.

Wednesday’s ruling involves Proposition 206.

Approved by voters last year, it immediately raised the state minimum wage from $8.05 an hour to $10. Future increases will boost that to $12 by 2020.

The same measure requires employers to provide at least three days of paid sick leave to workers.

Foes led by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry sued to block implementation, contending the measure was illegal.

They argued the provisions on wages and sick leave violated the single-subject rule. And they said the state had to raise what it pays private companies that provide care for the disabled to compensate them for having to pay their own workers more.

The justices rejected both arguments in a summary ruling in March.

What was released today explains their logic. More important, it spells out the ground rules for future initiatives and details how the high court will review them for legality.

The only thing that clouds any of this for future initiative drives are two measures approved earlier this year by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in response to the minimum wage hike. Both are designed to make it harder to put measures on the ballot.

One requires judges to keep initiatives off the ballot if they are not in “strict compliance” with each and every election law. That would overturn prior court ruling which have said such petition drives need be only in “substantial compliance” with the law, a standard that allows for minor and technical errors.

The legality of that change is being challenged in Maricopa County Superior Court, with a ruling expected by the end of the week.

Lawmakers also voted to forbid paying petition circulators based on the number of signatures they gather, the process most often used.

A group opposed to that is gathering signatures on a referendum drive to delay enforcement of that change until voters get a chance to decide whether to ratify or reject the change. They have through Aug. 8 to submit 75,321 valid signatures.

In Wednesday’s ruling the court made short work of the challenge to the single-subject rule.

“The rule applies to acts which are enacted by the legislature and does not address initiative or referendum petitions,” Justice Ann Scott Timmer wrote for the unanimous panel.

A bit more complex is the constitutional “revenue source rule.”

Approved by voters in 2004, it spells out that if a measure requires some new or increased state spending it must also include a source of those funds. It is designed to keep initiatives from diverting existing revenues from other programs.

Proposition 206 has no direct effect on the state payroll as state employees are not covered by the measure. But opponents contend the that the measure will force the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program, to increase what it pays private firms that provide nursing home and in-home care.

Providers whose contracts were negotiated when they could pay their workers as little as $8.05 an hour said they would go out of business if forced to pay more. The state responded by increasing their reimbursement.

But Timmer rejected arguments that made Proposition 206 unconstitutional.

“Proposition 206 itself does not require the state to increase rates for AHCCCS providers or reimburse increased labor costs to other state contractors,” she wrote. “And increasing the minimum wage and providing earned paid sick time for non-state workers does not inherently require the state to expend revenues.”

Put simply, she said, the decision to make those expenditures “stem from the state’s discretionary policies and spending decisions or third-party contracts.”

 

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