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Bill banning per-signature payment for initiative campaigns advances

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Arguing the process is considered by some to be “rife with fraud,” Republican lawmakers advanced legislation imposing a new hurdle in the ability of citizen groups to propose their own laws.

HB2404, approved Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, would make it illegal to pay initiative petition circulators based on the number of signatures they gather. Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who is carrying the bill for business interests, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Arizonans have “lost confidence” in the process.

“I’m wondering where you got that belief from and if you have some sort of way to back that up,” responded Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale. Leach said he got it from the Yellow Sheet Report, a political tip sheet and sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times.

The legislation Leach is advancing is the top priority of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which has made “reform” of the initiative process its top legislative priority in the wake of voter approval of increasing the minimum wage.

The organization even brought out attorney Brett Johnson to argue to lawmakers why the measure makes sense.

But Johnson, under questioning from Quezada, conceded he had no actual evidence of fraud in any Arizona initiative. Instead, he cited some studies from other states.

Anyway, Johnson argued, this really isn’t about fraud despite the comments by Leach. Instead, he said, it’s about “process.”

“That is the state’s public policy and purpose to ensure the orderly processing of signatures,” he said.

Various groups, which have had relative success getting what they want from the Republican-controlled legislature, have lined up behind the legislation. That includes all major utilities, the Center for Arizona Policy, the hospital association and a group that lobbies on behalf of building owners and managers.

Supporters of the new restriction also include groups that have been the target of successful initiative efforts, ranging from the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, which opposed the 1994 voter-approved ban on leg-hold traps, to the Arizona Restaurant Association, which led the unsuccessful fight to quash the just-approved increase in the state minimum wage.

The measure drew opposition Teresa Ulmer. She lobbies for Living United for Change in Arizona, the group that got the Proposition 206 wage hike on the ballot, saying that is “probably why we’re hearing this bill today.”

Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr, whose organization has been involved in several successful initiatives, said it’s already difficult to get a measure on the ballot.

“Making it more difficult and more expensive is the opposite direction we should be moving relative to this important constitutional right,” she told lawmakers.

Bahr did not dispute figures cited by Leach that show close to 36 percent of the signatures checked on petitions this past year turned out to be invalid. But, she said, it would be wrong to equate that with fraud, saying even technical flaws with someone’s signature can invalidate it.

Nothing in HB2404, which already has cleared the House, would bar paying people to collect signatures. But their pay would have to be based on an hourly rate or some other arrangement unconnected with how many signatures they gather.

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said he sees a benefit to such a change, unrelated to the question of whether petition circulators might be tempted to forge signatures to increase their pay. He said it might result in people being better educated about what they are being asked to sign.

The best comparison, he said, is going to buy a car.

“We know the salesman is paid a commission based on (the customer) being sold that car,” Worsley said. “What did they tell us and not tell us to get us to buy the car?”

In a bid to buttress his argument, Leach pointed out that in 2009, when Democrat Janet Napolitano was governor, she recommended getting rid of paying people on a per-signature basis. But Quezada said Leach was telling only half the story, neglecting to note that Napolitano also suggested lowering the number of signatures required to put a measure on the ballot.

Leach conceded the point. But he said lowering the number of signatures required could mean that petition circulators would not bother to seek out signatures in rural parts of the state.

And Leach rejected arguments that, if paid-by-the-signature campaigns are so subject to fraud, then the same ban should apply to political candidates.

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