Senate committee votes to overturn Voter Protection Act

Senate committee votes to overturn Voter Protection Act


A Senate panel voted Tuesday to ask voters to give up some of their rights to enact — and, more to the point, preserve — their own laws.

HCR2043 would effectively overturn a 1998 voter-approved constitutional provision that says once a measure is approved at the ballot it can be overturned only with a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate. And even with that margin, they cannot repeal what voters have enacted but can approve only changes that “further the purpose” of the underlying measure.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said lawmakers need the ability to react when situations change.

“Pretty much everything passed at the ballot is locked in stone,” he told members of the Senate Committee on Federalism, Mandates and Fiscal Responsibility.

Mesnard said his proposal, if approved in November, would not provide a carte blanche for a majority of lawmakers to undo voter proposals on a “willy-nilly” basis.

It says lawmakers could enact changes only if they get the same margin as the original measure. So if the initiative got 55 percent of the popular vote, it would take 33 of 60 House members to override and 17 of 30 senators.

Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said organizations like hers go to the ballot because the Republican-controlled Legislature has repeatedly failed to respond to things that people want, whether funding to preserve parks, outlaw animal cruelty or enact tobacco taxes to fund health care. She suggested that there would be fewer incidents of voters deciding to take things into their own hands if lawmakers would work in a bipartisan fashion.

That drew a skeptical response from Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix.

“Bipartisanship is not always a good thing,” she said. “And a compromise reached is not always beneficial to the citizens.”

Central to the debate is that 1998 constitutional change.

It actually has its roots in a successful 1996 initiative, the first attempt to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana and otherwise illegal drugs to their patients. The following year, though, lawmakers concluded that voters might have been confused and effectively repealed what voters had just enacted.

Backers came back in 1998, not only getting voters to reenact the 1996 measure but also approve the Voter Protection Act which ties the hands of lawmakers in tinkering with what is enacted at the ballot.

HCR2043 would not affect anything approved to this point. But if ratified in November, it would give the go-ahead for legislators to alter whatever is enacted at this election and every one in the future.

Mesnard said that flexibility is needed.

“People want us to be effective,” he said. “Our ability to be effective is becoming diminished because of the tentacles of Voter Protection that are spreading throughout our ability to modify things very difficult.”

But Bahr said if lawmakers believe a law enacted by voters needs to be altered or repealed outright, there’s a simple answer: Put it on the ballot and make the case for voters to approve the change.

She also said the Voter Protection Act exists for reasons beyond that 1997 legislative repeal of the medical marijuana law. Bahr said lawmakers have a long history of ignoring voter will.

She specifically cited voter approval in 1990 of the Heritage Fund, which allocated $20 million a year from Lottery proceeds for parks and wildlife preservation.

“But the very next year the Legislature came in and said the voters didn’t know what they were doing and tried to divert the dollars,” she said. “Eventually, that effort was successful.”

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said no one was trying to eliminate the initiative process, which dates from the first days of statehood. But he said there is a “shared balance” of power.

“We are a republic before we are a democracy,” he said. “And if you do have a republican form of government, as our nation and state has, then certainly I think that form of government should always prevail.”

If nothing else, Smith said HCR2043 provides a check and balance on the power of the people to make their own laws.

Mesnard said part of the need for legislative oversight is the ability of special interests to spend a lot of money to get an issue on the ballot and convince voters to approve it. That criticism of the initiative process drew a skeptical response from Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson.

“What do you think happens down here?” he said of the legislative process.

The measure, which already has been approved by the House, now needs action by the full Senate.