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Minimum wage initiative at risk as judge rules many petitioners not qualified

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A judge on Thursday ruled that dozens of people who circulated petitions to boost the minimum wage were not legally qualified to do so.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joshua Rogers said Arizona law requires residents from other states and those who are collecting signatures for pay to register with the secretary of state’s office. More to the point, that registration must have an address where someone raising questions about petitions can find them and, if necessary, serve them with legal papers.

These circulators had not complied. That, in turn, means none of the signatures they collected can be counted.

But the rulings do not necessarily knock the measure off the ballot. It could take days to see if the number of affected signatures is enough to leave proponents of the initiative without at least the legally required 150,642 valid names.

At stake is whether voters will get to decide in November if the minimum wage should be raised immediately to $10. There would be step increases to $12 by 2020, with future raises linked to inflation.

The current state minimum wage is $8.05 an hour.

Opposition is being led by the Arizona Restaurant Association. Foes contend such a large increase would harm business, forcing them to raise costs and lay off workers.

But they are not waiting to make that case to the public. Instead they are trying to keep the issue from getting on the ballot in the first place.

“In Arizona, there is a privilege to be able to use out-of-state and paid circulators to circulate petitions to gather signatures to qualify ballot measures,” attorney Roopali Desai, representing challengers, told Rogers. “But that privilege is not without certain restrictions.”

And she said lawmakers have decided that special attention needs to be paid to those who make a living gathering signatures.

“They come in, they get paid per signature to collect as many signatures as they can,” Desai said. “And they’re not always paying attention to or being informed about the laws in the states where they’re circulating petitions.”

That includes the requirement for an in-state address.

“We need to be able to get ahold of folks who go and make contact with Arizona voters and are asking for their personal information, things like their name, their signature, their address,” Desai said. She said having an address ensures that “the public can see who they are, so the secretary of state can initiate an inquiry if they need to find out if something is not going as it should.”

The easiest cut for Rogers to make was of those who didn’t provide that in-state address. But the judge was not as responsive to various other claims by challengers, like questions of whether there was sufficient evidence to show one or more circulators were felons and therefore legally ineligible to collect signatures.

It is the nature of the verification process that will prevent an immediate finding of whether enough valid signatures remain to put the initiative on the ballot.

Attorney Andrew Gordon, also representing challengers, said the secretary of state, after an initial screening, determined there were about 238,000 signatures on petitions.

Arizona law requires her to send a random sample to each county to see how many can be verified. Gordon said he assumes somewhere between 70 and 73 percent will be found valid.

Everything else being equal, that would still leave more than 166,000 names, more than enough to put the issue on the ballot.

Challengers hope to strike petitions with about 70,000 names. If he can get the judge to eliminate 50,000, that brings the total against which the validity rate will be measured down to 188,000. And if just 70 percent are validated, that leaves the petition drive short and the measure won’t go to voters.

Gordon is involved in a separate lawsuit seeking to block a November vote on a measure which would cap the pay of non-medical hospital executives and administrators at $450,000 a year.

His challenges to that initiative are the same as this one: invalid petitions because of unqualified circulators. A hearing on that measure is scheduled for this coming week.

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