Republican lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a measure that would ask voters to take away even more of their own power to write their own laws after persuading them last year to significantly limit their power of the initiative.
The voter referral approved along party lines by the Senate would require backers of initiatives to collect signatures from all 30 legislative districts for an initiative, constitutional amendment or voter referendum to make the ballot.
Currently, the constitution requires signatures from 10% of the people who voted at the last gubernatorial election for an initiative to make the ballot. That would be about 260,000 for 2024.
A constitutional amendment requires the signatures of 15% of those who voted; putting a bill passed by the Legislature on hold so it can be referred to the ballot takes 5%.
But there are no requirements on where signatures have to be gathered. That means a proposal could be put to voters just based on the wishes of residents of Maricopa County.
If the House also approves the measure, voters would be asked in 2024 to change the requirement so that those signatures come from each of the legislative districts.
The proposal from Chandler Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard comes after years of efforts by Republicans to make it harder to get voter initiatives on the ballot and easier to kick them off.
Backed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, lawmakers have limited the ability of voters to bypass the GOP-controlled legislature and enact statutes lawmakers refused to consider, such as those legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage.
In last November’s election, voters approved two of the three changes to the initiative process placed on the ballot by GOP lawmakers over objections from minority Democrats.
Those changes now require that any measure that includes a tax increase or fee to get 60% of voters to go along, while a second proposition limits initiatives to a single subject. Those changes limit the ability of initiative backers to place comprehensive measures that may cost some money on the ballot.
A measure making it easier for the Legislature to change voter-approved laws failed.
The Legislature has also passed a series of laws with approval from former GOP Gov. Doug Ducey tightening the rules for collecting qualifying signatures and making it easier to kick measures whose backers succeed in collecting enough off the ballot.
Mesnard argues what is in SCR 1015 would allow voters across the state to weigh in on what should make the ballot. He says voters in Maricopa and other large counties already have too much power over whether they pass and this levels the playing field.
Democrats decried the effort, saying it is designed to limit the power of the public to bypass the Legislature and would effectively give voters in one small corner of the state veto power.
“This bill is a terrible idea because we should not empower one legislative district to veto an idea,” Tempe Democratic Sen. Mitzi Epstein said. “If you believe in our democratic republic, this is a terrible idea.”
But Republicans united in backing the proposal, saying it levels the playing field between urban and rural voters.
“When a small minority of people impose their will on the majority, there’s a term for that. It’s called the tail wagging the dog,” Fountain Hills Sen. John Kavanagh said.
“When it comes to signatures for initiative and referendum in Arizona, you have the reverse,” he continued. “You have the largest county in Maricopa … disproportionately contributing to the signatures for these items, ignoring the tail, which are the rural districts.”
That’s not how Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, sees it.
“What we’re seeing is a concerted effort to chip away at our people’s ability to make laws through the initiative process that our state constitution guarantees us,” Sundareshan said, noting that the measure also requires more certification and imposes new procedural hurdles on signature-gatherers. “This is just really one heavy, heavy burden that we are adding into … that signature collection process for a statewide initiative.”
Mesnard scoffed at the arguments raised by Democrats, saying those who listened to them might have a “gross misunderstanding” of what the proposal does.
“This proposal is just trying to make sure that the entire state has some element of a voice in a proposal,” Mesnard said.
“But at the end of the day, Maricopa could still run roughshod over the entire state and impose its will on November’s actual election,” he said, noting that nothing in the measure requires whatever is on the ballot to actually be approved in all 30 legislative districts.
The measure now goes to the House.