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State legislature takes aim at citizen ballot initiatives with raft of restricting bills, referendums

Arizona+Gov.+Doug+Ducey+talks+about+his+background+and+experience+prior+to+becoming+governor+during+his+visit+to+Dr.+Paul+Melendezs+business+ethics+class+at+the+Aerospace+and+Mechanical+Engineering+building+on+April+27.+Ducey+supported+several+bills+during+the+past+legislative+session+aimed+at+curbing+citizens+influence+on+Arizona+laws.
Heather Newberry

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey talks about his background and experience prior to becoming governor during his visit to Dr. Paul Melendez’s business ethics class at the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering building on April 27. Ducey supported several bills during the past legislative session aimed at curbing citizens’ influence on Arizona laws.

Since its inception, Arizona has provided the power to its residents to create law through the ballot initiative system, a process outlined in the state’s constitution. Now, that process is under attack.

Following the passage of last year’s Proposition 206, a citizen ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage, Arizona’s business community went to work lobbying to make sure they weren’t caught off guard again.

This year, state legislature has introduced five bills and three referendums all aimed at making it more difficult for citizens to have their laws reach the ballot.

“Arizona has a fairly progressive constitution,” said State Rep. Kristen Engel, D-Tucson. “The citizen initiative process was in there since the very beginning and I think that’s a kind of legacy that we want to preserve.”

The primary intent of the bills involves increasing the costs of getting an initiative to the ballot, whether by changing the way signature gatherers are paid or by increasing chances for initiative organizers to get fined.

While the rights of citizens to introduce initiatives as outlined in the constitution have yet to be threatened by state lawmakers, the ability to sustain an initiative is becoming more challenging.

“We’re certainly eating away at them,” Engel said.  

Follow the money

Engel said the impetus for these initiatives came from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, who, in their agenda for this year’s legislative session, emphasized “advanced ballot initiative reforms that ensure that out-of-state interests cannot undercut Arizona’s economic competitiveness.”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has echoed these sentiments having been involved with the ballot process, both for and against initiatives.

“It’s a process that I embrace,” he said. “We want to make sure that people have as much information as possible, that this remains a citizen-based initiative, and that it’s not special interest parachuting in from out-of-state with millions of dollars in September and October with a glossy marketing campaign and having people voting ‘yes’ on something.”

HB2255, introduced by Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, would have outlawed out-of-state donations for state ballot initiatives. The bill was never heard in house committees.

Indeed, two propositions on the ballot in 2016 saw massive funding campaigns from out-of-state.

Proposition 205, an initiative to legalize marijuana under an agency control board, received nearly $1.5 million — 20 percent of all donations — from the Marijuana Policy Project, the organizers of the campaign. Another $241,000 came from the MPP Foundation.

Though Proposition 206 received far less funding than Proposition 205, about $4 million, nearly half of the funding — just more than $1.9 million — came from an in-state PAC, Living United for Change in Arizona.

“Of course special interests can participate,” Ducey said. “What I want to do is highlight when they are participating versus a citizen initiative.”

RELATED: University delays raising minimum wage

Laws for life

The other issue for supporters of the bills is the permanency voter initiatives enjoy in state law.

One of the bills, HB2320 sponsored by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, would have required a notification on the ballot that the law cannot be changed except by a three-quarters vote in the legislature — and even then, only if the changes “further the original intent of the law.” The bill failed to pass senate committee hearings.

“We live with the results of these initiative decisions forever,” Ducey said. “They’re unchangeable.”

While they are technically changeable, the vote would require massive coordination efforts. Such a vote in a divided legislature would be nearly impossible to achieve.

“I do have an issue with something that’s unchangeable,” Ducey said. “What law is there that everyone says should never change, should never be touched, should never be tweaked, improved or reformed?”

According to Engel, the initiative process is designed for citizens to bring their own ideas to the law without interference from legislature. An overly-simplified process for legislature to change the bills passed at the ballot would defeat the purpose.

“When the voters speak, that has special status.,” Engel said. “The voters are not going to go through that process unless they really mean it and it should not be easy for legislature to overturn it.”

While the laws aimed at providing more power to legislators have gotten stuck in the legislative process, Ducey believes there is already enough citizen oversight of the legislature.

“Regardless of what people think about state legislature, they stand accountable to the voters every two years,” he said.  

Raising the bar

While lawmakers have been unsuccessful in attempts to vastly change the initiative process for citizens, the bills that have passed will add a costly barrier to citizens trying to bring a proposition to the ballot.

HB2244, sponsored by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, will change the requirement of signature forms for initiatives to meet “strict compliance” with state guidelines, up from “substantial compliance.” Ducey signed the bill into law.

“[It] certainly opens up the door to throwing out signatures for small infractions,” Engel said.

She said that whole pages could be thrown out for something as minor as the margins on the page, or whether signature collectors included their registration number on the form.

Another bill puts greater restrictions on hiring signature gathers. HB2404, sponsored by Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, requires initiative organizers to pay by the hour, rather than by the signature, and institutes registration fees and background checks to weed out potential violators of fraud, forgery or identity theft. This bill also passed the governor’s desk.

Another bill almost at the end of the legislative process, SB1236 from Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, would institute a $1,000 fine at the expense of initiative organizers for instances of fraud and forgery by paid signature gatherers. Interpretations of fraud would be left up to the office of the secretary of state.

RELATED: Arizona votes ‘no’ on Prop. 205, blocks legalization of recreational marijuana  

Future implications

David Wisniewski has been firing on all cylinders for years to bring what would be one of the country’s most progressive marijuana laws into effect in Arizona. His campaign, Safer Arizona, is the only initiatives in the process of collecting signatures for the 2018 ballot.

Wisniewski said the restrictions on signature gatherers hasn’t affected his campaign, since his collectors are volunteers. However, with the concurrent votes of Proposition 205 and Proposition 206, Wisniewski sees the new laws as an affront on legalizing recreational marijuana.

“I see what they’re doing as total anti-constitution, total anti-American,” he said. “They’re attacking our right.”

While Wisniewski is concerned about the campaign’s ability to collect enough signatures by the state’s deadline, he still plans on doing everything within his power to push his initiative.

“We’ve been doing this for four years,” he said. “It’s been tough the whole time. We still have to push full force. Never give up, full throttle the whole way.”

Though the effects of the state’s new laws have yet to be determined, the intention is clear. Two house resolutions introduced by Ugenti-Rita were aimed at repealing, then reforming the Voter Protection Act in the state’s constitution.

“[The backers’ intention is] certainly to make it harder for citizens to get their views into law and to put a check on the legislature,” Engel said. “I mean, that’s really what the initiative process is all about. Is when citizens are not happy with the representation they’re getting in legislature, they can go directly to the ballot, and now it’s just going to be much more difficult for them to do so.’”


Follow Nick Meyers on Twitter.


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