In 2022, depending on which advocacy groups succeed in gathering enough support, voters may see questions on their ballot asking about capping medical debt, stopping secretive election spending or ending machine counting of ballots.
They’ll also be asked to vote to make it more difficult for citizens to make lasting laws through the initiative process, after legislative Republicans finally succeeded in sending two initiative-limiting referendums to the ballot.
Some of the more extreme bills targeting initiatives, including one to require each ballot measure to obtain 55% of the vote for passage, instead of the simple majority now required, didn’t succeed. But during the last few days of the legislative session, House and Senate Republicans managed to pass measures that could make it easier for lawmakers to reverse the will of voters and limit initiatives –which sometimes contain a laundry list of policies – to a single subject.
In a March debate on one of the measures, Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said, “Our ballot measure process in Arizona is one of our most precious constitutional rights, yet those on the other side have come up with bills year after year, for decades, to decimate it, and here we go again.”
SCR1034, introduced by Sen. Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke, and approved by Republican majorities in the House and Senate, would undermine the voter-approved Voter Protection Act, which blocks the Legislature from repealing or amending voter-approved laws, unless any legislative amendments pass with a three-fourths vote and further the purpose of the voter-approved law.
The Voter Protection Act passed in 1998, after the Legislature effectively repealed a 1996 voter-approved law legalizing medical marijuana. After progressive groups began more effectively using the initiative process during the past few years – passing laws that raised the minimum wage and created a new surcharge on the wealthy to fund education – Republican lawmaers and business interests have pushed hard to weaken the Voter Protection Act.
Leach’s measure would allow the Legislature to amend or repeal any part of a voter-approved law if a single part of it is deemed unconstitutional.
“This is not taking anything away from the voters. This is giving the voters an opportunity to have a say,” Leach said during a March debate on the measure.
The other measure headed to the ballot, Rep. John Kavanagh’s HCR2001, would limit citizen initiatives to a single subject. Lawmakers already theoretically have to follow that rule for their own legislation – though anyone reading the hundreds of pages of tangentially related policy included in budget bills wouldn’t know that.
“The purpose of the single subject rule is to prevent something called logrolling, where you take a bunch of good things and you shove a bad thing that doesn’t have popular support, in it, thus forcing voters to take the bad with the good or reject all the good because of the bad,” Kavanagh said during a January committee hearing introducing his bill.
Rodd McLeod, spokesman for the Healthcare Rising Arizona group behind one proposed 2022 ballot measure, said the recent budget fight shows that legislating is messy, and people have to make compromises to get a shared goal accomplished. Ballot measures don’t have the same opportunity to fail, get amended and pass a few days or weeks later – they get one chance to get the language right before collecting signatures.
The two initiative-limiting referendums, and the many others that were considered by the Legislature this year, are an attempt by lawmakers to take power away from people, McLeod said.
“I think the Republican elite kind of had the bejesus scared out of them in the last couple elections,” he said. “They’ve given up on offering a vision for the future, and now they’re left with rewarding donors, making it easier to hold onto political power and creating bad situations for people who don’t view the world the way they do.”
Michael Smith, a retired social worker and one of the leaders of Healthcare Rising Arizona, said Republicans may end up regretting their attempts to make the initiative process more difficult if Democrats seize legislative majorities and Republicans are left to try to pass policies on the ballot.
“Of course, they’re going to regret it when the backlash comes along because Arizona is turning more and more blue,” he said.