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Guest opinion

Cunningham: Initiative intimidation rips heart out of Arizonans' right to pass our own laws

As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived, it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory to recur to the same original authority ... whenever it may be necessary to enlarge, diminish, or new-model the powers of government. – James Madison

This week, we heard the news that two citizen initiatives will not be on the state ballot. One would have funded education, the other called on groups spending money on Arizona elections to put their names on their ads.

Whatever your thoughts on these particular proposals, we will be denied a discussion and the right to vote for or against them. As someone who grew up in Arizona politics, it's sad to see that judges and elected officials have made it so hard for citizens to propose their own laws. This is something, after all, that was a big priority of the people who wrote our state Constitution.

Arizona's Constitution was put together in 1911 in anticipation of statehood the following year. That year, the Progressive movement had taken hold in both parties. There was a worry about corporate and monopoly power over government, so the Progressives wanted to return power to voters. The three pillars of this concept, and you probably remember this from high school so say it with me, were initiative, referendum and recall.

Referendum is the mandate that certain laws have to go to the people. Constitutional amendments go to the people, but also if people gather enough signatures in a given period of time, any law that the Legislature passes has to go to the voters before it can go into effect. Recall is an easy one. If an elected official screws up or offends enough people, voters can petition to vote that person out of office before the term is up.

The two items that were taken off the ballot were initiatives. To get an initiative to pass, a group of citizens gets together and writes some proposed legislation. Once that's done, it takes signatures from voters to put it on the ballot. The number is based on how many people voted in the last gubernatorial election, so that number is currently over 150,000.

Initiatives have a special place in Arizona law. There are a series of laws dating back to shortly after statehood to make it difficult for legislators to ignore, neuter or cancel a law passed by initiative. Many of those laws, by the way, were passed as initiatives.

The earliest Arizona initiative, by the way, was passed in 1912. It gave women the right to vote in state elections.

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There is already the barrier of having to get so many signatures by the deadline. In addition, there are rules to make sure that initiatives are not confusing or that provisions are not hidden away to trick voters. You'd think that would be enough to make sure that the system is working.

In the last two years, however, the Legislature passed laws changing the standard by which signatures on initiative petitions are judged from "substantial compliance" to "strict compliance." "Strict" means if you signed a petition and your signature was not quite in the little box or the petition passer helped you out writing your address because your hand was hurting, sorry, it doesn't count. By the way, signatures on petitions for candidates when they run for office don't have to pass this standard. I'm sure that was just an oversight.

The other thing they've done is allowed people that oppose a particular initiative to subpoena anyone that gathered signatures, ostensibly to make sure they are on the up and up. We saw a spectacle in the last couple of weeks of fifteen hundred people being called into a court in Phoenix for passing petitions for an initiative on solar energy. That one stayed on the ballot because there was a man who was willing to foot the bill to put people up in hotels so they could be there. The initiative on campaign financing, no surprise, had no big money backer to do this so signatures were thrown out when people couldn't make it to court.

It's sad that this sort of intimidation can go on, and it rips the heart out of our right as Arizonans to pass our own laws. Keep in mind that our neighbors of all ideological stripes have used the initiative process, from proposals to make it harder for the legislature to raise taxes to limits on animal trapping. This is something that makes our state unique. We need to make sure that future legislatures undo these laws that are making it impossible for us to exercise our rights.

Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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