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Arizona House panel OKs new GOP restrictions on citizen initiatives

A House committee gave preliminary approval to two measures making it more difficult for Arizona voters to have their say on state policy at the ballot box.

One would make it harder to put proposed laws on the ballot and another that would make it more difficult to pass them once they get there.

To put a citizen initiative on the ballot, organizers must collect signatures equal to 10% of all registered voters for statutory changes and 15% for amendments to the Arizona Constitution. Those signatures can come from anywhere in the state. But House Concurrent Resolution 2014 would require that benchmark to come from each of the state's 30 legislative districts.

Many initiatives focus their qualifying efforts in Phoenix and Tucson, as roughly 75% of the state's population lives in or near those cities.

And once an initiative qualifies for the ballot, House Concurrent Resolution 2015 would raise the threshold for enacting those proposed laws. The resolution would require citizen initiatives to get a supermajority of at least 60% of the vote in order to pass, rather than the simple majority they've needed since statehood in 1912.

The House Government and Elections Committee approved both resolutions on party-line votes on Wednesday. Both would require voter approval to amend the citizen initiative process, which is enshrined in the Arizona Constitution. If both legislative chambers approve the measures, they'll go to the November ballot.

The proposals are part of the Republican majority's annual tradition of imposing new restrictions on citizen initiatives. The initiative process is primarily used by Democrats and left-leaning groups to pass laws that would never pass muster in the GOP-controlled legislature — like increases to the minimum wage, boosts in public school funding and legalized marijuana — despite their popularity with Arizona voters. As such, Republican lawmakers routinely enact new restrictions and requirements that make it more difficult to enact voter-approved laws.

"Congratulations, Arizona House Government and Elections Committee. We did it again," House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, a Phoenix Democrat, quipped after the votes Wednesday.

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A 30-district requirement for citizen initiatives was also approved in the Senate Government Committee last month.

Rep. Tim Dunn, a Yuma Republican who sponsored both resolutions, said the 30-district requirement is intended to ensure that initiative organizers get support from every corner of the state, not just from Maricopa County, which is home to 60% of the state's population and which dominates Arizona politically.

Bolding alleged that the real intent behind the proposal is to make it more difficult to put citizen initiatives on the ballot.

"Make no mistake — it is designed to make it more difficult for citizen initiatives to get on the ballot," he said. "No matter how it's spinned, the primary purpose is to make it more difficult for Arizonans to have our voices heard when the legislature chooses not to act on popular policies that the public is asking for."

Dunn didn't deny that it would make things more difficult for initiative campaigns, but said the purpose of HCR2014 was to ensure that voters across the state can make their voices heard.

"This just makes it more equitable, so that we can all understand and have a say in what's going before the voters, so if they're going to actually try to get something on the ballot, then they should come out and talk to the people, the citizens of the state," Dunn said. "It might make it harder, but the intent is not to make it harder."

Bolding accused Dunn of applying a double-standard for initiatives and politicians, likening the proposal to a law that would require legislative candidates to get signatures from each precinct in their districts. For more than a century, Arizona required statewide candidates to get signatures from at least three counties to qualify for the ballot, but the Secretary of State's Office agreed to stop enforcing that in 2014 after a conservative advocacy group filed a lawsuit alleging that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Rep. Sarah Liguori, a Phoenix Democrat who said she's collected signatures for numerous initiatives, noted many voters don't even know which legislative district they live in. While Republican Rep. Teresa Martinez pointed out that, in rural counties, most voters are in the same district, the same isn't true in the metro Phoenix and Tucson areas, where multiple districts can be separated by just a few blocks. And because the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission recently redrew the lines, even voters who know their district may need some time to learn their new ones, Liguori said.

Dunn suggested that more technologically advanced campaigns might be able to create an app that would let them quickly determine which district a voter lives in.

And Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, D-Avondale, said the initiative in some ways could be self-defeating because even many rural districts extend into Maricopa and Pima counties. Only eight of the 30 districts don't include any part of Maricopa County, and only three don't extend into either of the two most populous counties.

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Dunn's District, for example, stretches from northern Yuma into the West Valley. Sierra noted that the current District 4 also includes parts of Yuma, the Tucson area and the West Valley.

"You could get 10% of those signatures from Maricopa alone," Sierra said of District 4. "Wouldn't that defeat the purpose of this?"

Though Dunn said the purpose of HCR2014 wasn't to make initiatives more difficult, he openly acknowledged that HCR2015's intent was to make it harder to pass them. The reason, he said, is that when initiatives pass, the state's Voter Protection Act largely prohibits lawmakers from amending them, even if serious changes are needed. Arizona voters in 1998 added the VPA to the state constitution, requiring a three-fourths vote in both legislative chambers to amend a voter-approved law — and any changes must further the initiative's intent.

"I think it's important that, when you have something that you can't change without us going back to the voters… to approve it, I think we should have overwhelming support," he said.

Dunn also said out-of-state interest groups use Arizona as a "testing ground" for proposed citizen initiatives.

A 60% threshold would be high, but not impossible to surmount, Dunn said. He noted that Proposition 207, the 2020 citizen initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, got more than 60% of the vote. But other measures that passed comfortably in recent years, like the 2016 minimum wage increase that received 58% of the vote, would have failed under Dunn's supermajority proposal.

Democrats again accused their Republican colleagues of employing a double standard that treated citizen initiatives differently from candidates and lawmakers, and Bolding noted that it takes only a simple majority to approve laws in the legislature. But Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, said it's not as simple as Bolding made it out to be.

Hoffman and Dunn pointed out that there are times when the legislature needs more than a simple majority, such as the two-thirds vote needed to pass a bill with an emergency clause to allow it to go into effect immediately, or to approve a tax increase. And though lawmakers need a supermajority to raise taxes — a constitutional provision that voters approved in 1992 — Hoffman noted that a citizen initiative can do so with only a simple majority of the vote.

In addition, Hoffman said Arizona is unique in that lawmakers are largely prohibited from amending voter-approved laws.

"We're now seeing issues that can't be fixed after the fact," Hoffman said.

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