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Chamber’s triple whammy staggers progressives’ defense of citizen initiatives

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It used to be a foregone conclusion that a coalition of progressive groups would challenge an attack this year on laws restricting Arizonans’ ability to pass laws at the ballot box.

The coalition’s unity is now in jeopardy, though, as it tries to adapt to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s most recent strategy: a multi-pronged attack on the ability to propose and pass laws through the voters and bypass the Legislature.

The citizens’ initiative process, a staple of Arizona politics by which voters propose laws at the ballot, allows them to circumvent their elected officials and adopt new laws, often those that the Legislature has ignored or failed to pass on its own.

In the past, it’s been easier to respond to legislative attempts to restrict the citizen initiative process because the fight has been one bill at a time.

Three is another story.

The chamber, the driving force behind a trio of bills at the Capitol that would each make changes to initiatives, appears to have learned from the past, when it pursued a host of measures adopted together in one bill.

In 2013, the chamber led the charge to pass HB2305, a package of elections laws that opponents sought to block. A coalition of progressive groups launched a successful citizen referendum of the law, which would have let the people decide on the 2014 ballot if the law should stay.

Rather than risk a repeal of the law by voters, lawmakers chose to undo it themselves the following year.

Three years later, the chamber’s initial effort at the Legislature appeared similar to HB2305 in scope.

As introduced, HB2404, sponsored by Republican Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, made a host of changes to the citizen initiative process. But as passed and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey, a pared-down version of the bill made essentially one change, a ban on paying petition circulators by the signature.

Now the chamber wants a second bite at the apple. And a third.

One measure stripped from HB2404 has resurfaced in another bill. As amended in a Senate committee, HB2244 would impose the legal standard of strict compliance on the initiative process. Petition organizers currently are required to substantially comply with election laws related to the initiative process, meaning they have room for error.

But strict compliance threatens to undo the efforts of petition gatherers for seemingly innocuous, technical reasons such as proper organization of the forms or the size of margins.

Another measure, SB1236, would impose $1,000 fines for individual violations of election law during the signature gathering process, and would leave petition organizers on the hook for the bill.

Whether all or some of the bills passes, progressive groups are left reeling and undecided about how to address a problem that seemed simple as one bill, but daunting as three.

Vote Them Out

For now, a coalition led by Arizona Wins, a progressive advocacy group dedicated to civic engagement and voting rights, is focused on damage control at the Legislature. The path forward would be much clearer if it can convince senators and representatives to defeat the remaining two bills at the Capitol.

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Sarah Michelsen

Sarah Michelsen, director of Arizona Wins, said her coalition won’t attempt a referendum of HB2404, the only measure to pass out of the Legislature so far, and is instead focused on ousting lawmakers who supported the bill.

Even if voters rejected HB2404 at the ballot, the Legislature can always come back and write new bills to hamper the initiative process and pass it again, she said.

The bills that remain would have a far worse impact on the initiative process, Michelsen said, meriting her group’s attention instead of focusing on HB2404.

Running a referendum on all three bills, if they’re all approved and signed into law, would be a waste of resources, she said, and it would play into the chamber’s hands.

Opponents of the bills believe the chamber is trying to limit the effectiveness of its adversaries’ resources by pushing multiple bills.

Perhaps if the group can influence enough legislative races, they’d be able to undo the damage with the help of a more moderate Legislature, Michelsen said.

“We can’t allow (the chamber) to put us on the defense all the time,” she said.

To convince lawmakers that voting for SB1236 or HB2244 is a mistake, they must be convinced that threats to their individual re-election campaigns are real.

Some fully support the strategy and want lawmakers to know they’re being watched.

Tomas Robles, executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, which spearheaded the successful 2016 initiative to raise the minimum wage, said his organization stands behind Michelsen and the other groups in the Arizona Wins coalition.

While a referendum might seem attractive, Robles argued that the long-term approach of electing a more moderate Legislative body is the best approach.

The goal isn’t so much to flip the Legislature from red to blue, but to elect lawmakers who will be more respectful of voters’ wishes. Even some Republican lawmakers are hearing from constituents who are frustrated by what’s seen as attacks on voters’ rights.

“Regardless of whether we change the Legislature in one cycle or it takes four or six, we need legislators who will do the will of the voters,” Robles said. “And right now, they listen to the Chamber of Commerce or whoever it is that pays for their races.”

No Trust

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, warned that a referendum has its drawbacks, and pointed to the end result of the effort to halt HB2305 in 2013.

While opponents successfully collected enough signatures to refer the law to the ballot in November 2014, voters never got a chance to determine the law’s fate. The Legislature simply repealed it, only to pass its provisions piecemeal in future sessions.

“I think we learned our lesson. You just can’t trust some of the legislators down there,” Thomas said.

In a letter sent to Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, Thomas described the latest legislative proposals, SB1236 and HB2244, as “an attack on the constitutional rights of Arizonans to direct democracy and ballot initiatives.”

Thomas warned that voters are watching to see what lawmakers do with the highly publicized bills, and that the AEA will use its legislative report card to identify those who vote for them.

“As a result, any legislator that votes in support of these bills would be seen as siding with corporate special interests, and against teachers and students,” Thomas wrote.

Joel Edman, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, said the idea is to try to make it clear to legislators that they will be held accountable for their actions. Edman claimed the Chamber has been urging some lawmakers to vote yes under the notion that the laws will be referred to the ballot and rejected by voters.

Why not vote for it, and please the Chamber and its members, if it’s not going to take effect anyway?

Sam Richard, the executive director of Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition, said that the Chamber has quietly been trying to convince moderate Republicans to vote for bills under the assumption that the voters will clean up the mess.

Richard said lawmakers need to stop creating the mess in the first place.

“The collective idea here is that’s just not going to cut it. We’re not going to be some kind of filtering between the lawmakers and the bad decisions they make and their votes,” Richard said.

Referendum

Not everyone in the nascent coalition agrees with Arizona Wins’ decision to forsake the referendum and ballot measure in favor of campaigning against lawmakers. Ryan Hurley, who leads Rose Law Group’s medical marijuana practice and was active in the Proposition 205 campaign in 2016 to legalize recreational marijuana, said opponents will likely stand down from a referendum or ballot initiative as long as SB1236 and HB2244 don’t get approved.

But if all the bills go through, especially the strict compliance language in HB2244, a referendum may be a necessity, he said.

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Ryan Hurley

“I think we’ve shown that we can marshal the resources necessary to do that, whether Arizona Wins is part of the deal or not,” Hurley said.

Such an effort may focus with one referendum on one bill, according to Richard. While nothing is off the table, part of the emerging strategy of the Arizona Wins coalition is driven by the reality of fighting three bills at once.

Essentially, trying to run multiple referenda on multiple bills is a nonstarter, Richard said.

“It’s safe to say that referenda are off the table, but a [single] referendum might not be off the table,” he said. In the event lawmakers approve all three bills, “it really is a fool’s errand to try and put together three referenda.”

The coalition’s path forward will become clear once the dust settles at the end of session, Richard said. One idea has been a ballot initiative to protect the ballot initiative — perhaps to return the initiative process to the current laws and undo the changes made by the Legislature. Such an effort could undo the damage from all three bills at once.

Running a ballot initiative could have a twofold positive impact. For one, ballot measures that get approved are guarded from future meddling by the Legislature thanks to the Voter Protection Act. But a ballot initiative could also help remind voters who to be mad at in 2018 by drawing attention to the law passed in 2017, more than a year before the election, and also give candidates challenging incumbents something to campaign on.

Richard noted that the minimum wage initiative, Proposition 206, fared better than many Democratic candidates in legislative districts.

“(Prop.) 206 outperformed a lot of those candidates, by double digits, who did not tie themselves to that,” Richard said.

He pointed to Legislative District 6 candidate Nikki Bagley, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake.

“It’s likely that if Nikki Bagley had talked about 206 more firmly, we’d be talking about Sen. Bagley now,” Richard said.

However, Edman warned that conversations about a ballot initiative are in their infancy at best, and that the focus now is on defeating bills at the Legislature.

Michelsen added that it’s too early to say if a ballot initiative is the right move.

“It’s certainly something that people have brought up,” she said. “A ballot measure is a big deal. We’re not just going to jump into it because the chamber is trying to force us to redirecting our efforts away from challenging Republicans in elections, which is what we really should be working on together.”

Whatever path the coalition takes after the session, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry is ready for a fight. Chamber spokesman Garrick Taylor said the group is prepared to defend HB2404 and fight to keep “common sense reforms.”

“We believe the case we’ll make to voters will be a compelling one,” Taylor said via email.

The same will hold true if a progressive coalition pushes a citizen initiative to undo some of the laws the chamber has proposed or make it easier to get initiatives and referenda to the ballot.

“We do not want to go backwards. Our initiative process should be defined by integrity and accountability. We will defend the progress we’ve achieved to that end,” Taylor said.

 

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