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Senate eyes change to petition processes

Manuel Galdamez, a member of Rural Arizonans for Accountability, walks through a neighborhood in northern Pima County to gather signatures for a petition to recall Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, on March 19. (PHOTO BY NATHAN BROWN/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES)

State senators took the first steps Monday that would erect new hurdles in the path of Arizonans to propose their own laws and constitutional amendments. 

On a 4-3 party-line vote, Republicans on the Government Committee approved a measure that says that petitions circulators have to actually read out loud the 200-word description on every ballot measure to anyone who wants to sign. 

In the alternative, SB1094 would require that signers being “sufficient time to read the description” before being able to put pen to paper. But nowhere in the proposal is that defined. 

More to the point, if the language is not read out loud or it is determined that there was not enough time, a judge is required to declare that signature invalid. 

Separately, the same panel approved SCR1025 which changes the requirements to qualify for the ballot. 

The Arizona Constitution now says that anyone seeking to propose a new law must get the signatures equal to at least 10% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial race. That is currently 237,645. 

This proposal by Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, would set that percentage requirement in each of the state’s 30 legislative districts. 

Ditto the 15% requirement for constitutional amendments. 

Leach said the current system results in circulators concentrating on getting all the signatures they need in Maricopa County. 

“You will see all kinds of people gathering signatures at Fry’s in the metropolitan Phoenix and the Valley area,” he said. “But I never see one at my Fry’s in Oro Valley.” 

And that, he said, is not surprising, comparing it to what Willie Sutton reportedly told a reporter when asked why he robs banks. 

“Because that’s where the money is,” Leach said. 

This measure, he said, will ensure that rural interests get a voice on what goes on the ballot. 

On the flip side, however, is that SCR 1024 effectively could give residents of one legislative district — which could be as small as some neighborhoods — veto power over everyone else getting a chance to vote on certain measures. 

Leach, for his part, questioned the likelihood of that ever happening. 

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who is the author of SB1094, said his goal is not to make it harder to put issues on the ballot. Instead, Mesnard said he is trying to end “spin-filled signature gathering” where circulators seeking to attract signers may be providing people with inaccurate information about exactly what the initiative proposes. 

Nothing in his bill would block circulators from saying whatever they want. But what it would do, Mesnard said, is ensure that people have the opportunity to hear the official summary and decide for themselves if this is something they care to support. 

Enforcement, however, is another matter. 

He said that could take the form of someone filing a complaint with a court saying that certain circulators were not complying with the law and that any signatures they gathered should not be counted. But Mesnard said he does not see judges in this state making such wholesale decisions. 

For example, he said, a would-be signer could tell a circulator he or she already is familiar with the measure, whether having actually read it or through news coverage. Mesnard said the key is that the circulator has made the offer to read it aloud or give the person the time to peruse the summary. 

“If the petition gatherer has done that, then I think they have complied with the law,” he said. 

“It’ll be exceedingly difficult for someone to say, ‘Well, I watched them and the person just glanced at it and then they signed it, no way they could read it that fast,’ ” Mesnard said. “I don’t think a judge is going to go for that.” 

Both measures now need approval of the full Senate and, eventually, the House. 

But Leach faces an extra hurdle. 

The signature requirements for initiatives are part of the Arizona Constitution. And the kind of changes he wants would need voter approval at the next election before taking effect. 

 

On Twitter: @azcapmedia 

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