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Judge won’t block new law Arizona targeting initiatives

A judge on Tuesday refused to block a new state law making it easier for opponents to challenge citizen initiatives, but she sidestepped a decision on whether the law violates the state Constitution.

The ruling from Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens said opponents of the law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature haven’t yet been harmed because there are no pending initiatives that would be affected by the new standard.

“The Court finds this matter is not ripe for judicial review,” Stephens wrote. “Plaintiffs believe House Bill 2244 will affect their future initiative efforts but this Court finds that expectation is not sufficient to make this matter ripe for judicial review of the constitutionality of HB 2244.”

The law goes into effect Wednesday and will apply to all future initiatives.

The ruling came weeks after a two-day hearing where activists who have backed previous initiatives testified that they would be hard-pressed to get them on the ballot under the new law.

Attorneys representing advocacy groups argued the Legislature overstepped its bounds when it passed the law making it easier to challenge initiatives. They also said lawmakers outlined their unconstitutional motives when they said the changes were needed because of their inability to change voter-approved laws.

Roopali Desai, an attorney for the groups, said an appeal is possible. She noted that the judge essentially agreed that initiative backers will have a harder time accessing the ballot.

A lawyer for the Legislature and the state solicitor general told Stephens lawmakers were within their rights to overrule decades of state Supreme Court precedent holding initiative efforts to lower legal standards. They also said initiative backers won’t be unduly hindered by the new law.

The new law was one of a pair of proposals targeting initiatives backed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the wake of voter approval of a minimum wage increase in November. The wage boost and a failed effort to legalize recreational marijuana were the last straw for the chamber, which has chafed under voter-approved laws that the GOP-controlled Legislature would never pass. Among them are legalized medical marijuana and the state’s independent redistricting commission.

The law changes the legal standard for review for qualifying petitions and the initiatives they aim to ask voters to enact into law. The decades-old standard is “substantial compliance,” which means courts will generally allow an initiative to go forward if there are minor issues with petition signatures or other flaws. The tighter standard would have courts look at the initiative text and qualifying signatures  using a “strict compliance” rule, which offers little leeway for problems commonly seen when thousands of petitions are circulated.

Andrew Chavez, who runs the state’ top petition-gathering firm, testified on July 12 that efforts to get citizen initiatives on the ballot in Arizona will be virtually impossible because of the costs of complying with the new Arizona law tightening the legal standard. He said costs to collect signatures and ensure they meet the tighter standards would likely go up 25 to 30 percent, soaring above $1 million for a statewide initiative effort.

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