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GOP lawmaker looks to add restrictions to voter initiatives

A Fountain Hills lawmaker is seeking a new restriction that could make it more difficult for voters to propose complex changes in state law.

The proposal by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would limit future ballot measures to “one subject,” with a requirement that be spelled out in the title. More to the point, it would allow a court to void any portion of a voter-approved measure not mentioned in the title.

Kavanagh said he is simply trying to extend to voter-crafted measures the same rules that apply to laws proposed by the Legislature.

But it comes after voters in 2006 approved Proposition 206 which hiked the state’s minimum wage from $8.05 an hour to $10, with automatic escalator clauses that will take the figure to $12 by 2020.

After its approval, business interests asked the Arizona Supreme Court to void the measure, pointing to another provision which requires most companies to provide workers with at least five days of sick and personal leave.

Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills)

Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills)

The justices swatted down that argument, saying that constitutional provisions that limit legislation to a single subject do not apply when the proposal comes from voters. That means initiative backers are free to propose new statutes with a full garden of ideas in a single measure, even if they are unrelated.

Kavanagh contends that practice amounts to “logrolling.” In essence, the idea is to keep voters from having to “hold their nose” and support something they do not like in exchange for getting something they want simply because it is being offered in a single take-it-or-leave-it measure.

“We need to separate different issues,” he said.

Tomas Robles, who chairs the group that got voters to adopt the minimum wage hike, has a different take on SCR 1001.

“Anytime the Legislature is trying to reduce the power of what our vote can accomplish, it’s a bad thing,” he said. And he called any effort to undermine the ability of citizens to propose their own law “dangerous.”

Robles also pointed out this isn’t an isolated effort by the Republican-controlled Legislature to curb initiatives.

Last year alone lawmakers erected several new hurdles in the path of initiative organizers. These include a prohibition on paying circulators based on the number of signatures they receive to allowing judges to disqualify petition drives if there has not been “strict compliance” with each technical requirement.

Kavanagh, for his part, said fears that the change will stymie the initiative process are unfounded. He said the Legislature, which operates under a similar constitutional constraint, still manages to craft measures that become law.

But Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said that fails to acknowledge a key difference in the process.

Lawmakers can get paid staffers to draft measures to have them considered; citizens need to not only hire outside legal help but then spend time and money gathering the signatures to put them on the ballot. And having to break issues into multiple petition drives, she said, simply doubles the cost.

What that leaves as a reason, Bahr said, is that lawmakers want to make it more difficult for voters to propose and enact their own laws — especially ones that are not in sync with the thinking of the Republican majority.

“They don’t like when the people pass measures that really are contrary to what they would do,” she said. And Bahr called the motive behind Kavanagh’s measure “pretty transparent, especially in light of the minimum wage issue.”

Bahr said there’s one good thing about what Kavanagh has proposed.

As a constitutional amendment, it could not take effect unless and until it is approved at the ballot. And Bahr said that gives groups like hers a chance to explain to voters why they should reject what he is proposing.

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