Lawmakers want to make it harder for voters to pass laws

Politicians say voting public unaware of ‘unintended consequences’

Arizona State Sen. Steve Yarbrough, left, R-Chandler, in this 2015 image, looks over bills the Senate is tackling. At right, Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, smiles as he listens during the 2015 legislative session. Yarbrough is the new Senate president and Mesnard is Arizona’s new House speaker. They formally take the reins Monday, Jan. 9, when the Legislature begins its 2017 session.

Arizona State Sen. Steve Yarbrough, left, R-Chandler, in this 2015 image, looks over bills the Senate is tackling. At right, Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, smiles as he listens during the 2015 legislative session. Yarbrough is the new Senate president and Mesnard is Arizona’s new House speaker. They formally take the reins Monday, Jan. 9, when the Legislature begins its 2017 session.

PHOENIX – State legislators are planning an assault on the constitutional right of Arizonans to enact their own laws unfettered by legislative interference.

A series of measures being proposed would change everything from signature threshold to imposing new requirements on the ability to use paid circulators. But the biggest would ask voters to repeal the measure they approved in 1998 that specifically bars lawmakers from tinkering with what gets approved at the ballot.

That’s not to say there won’t be other issues consuming legislative time when the session begins Monday, Jan. 9, ranging from how to divide up the more than $9 billion in revenues to who gets a tax cuts, especially because Gov. Doug Ducey, in campaigning in 2014, vowed to propose a tax cut every year he is in office. And he told Capitol Media Services he remains committed to that.

The big issue, obviously, is school funding, but don’t underestimate the political fighting that will occur over initiatives and who gets to write – and repeal – state laws.

Arizona’s constitution spells out that citizens are the ultimate lawmakers. More to the point, it permits them to write their own statutes when their elected officials balk.

It was voters who approved not only higher taxes on tobacco but also limits on where people can smoke. And it was voters who required funding of early childhood education programs, allowed the medical use of marijuana and approved the state’s first-ever minimum wage.

Other potentially controversial measures include

  • Having the legislature legalize recreational use of marijuana rather than leaving it for another ballot fight;
  • Revamping who sits on the state Board of Education;
  • Funding more than $20 billion in needed road construction and repairs;
  • Restoring the criminal penalties for violations of campaign finance laws that legislators repealed last year;
  • Barring texting while driving;
  • Creating a new post of lieutenant governor who would run as a ticket with the governor;
  • Making it a felony to steal a U.S. flag;
  • Giving income tax breaks when people make a profit off the sale of U.S. gold coins;
  • Allowing officials to deny “unduly burdensome or harassing” requests for public records;
  • Authorizing a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget;
  • Expanding laws that protect private individuals and companies from having to provide services to people whose religious beliefs they find objectionable;
  • Providing more immunity to state and local governments from lawsuits over road design;
  • Limiting the ability of cities to issue ID cards to those not legally present in this country;
  • Reducing the kinds of notices that government agencies must publish in newspapers;
  • Revamping how lawsuits are filed over violations of statutes to protect the disabled;
  • Altering the state retirement systems to preserve their financial solvency.

But it was the more recent 58-42 percent approval of Proposition 206 hiking that minimum to $10, taking it to $12 by 2020 and mandating paid time off that has angered members of the business community. They want new registration requirements on those who collect signatures for money as well as making it easier to challenge those signatures.

There also are moves to require a certain percentage of signatures on ballot propositions to come from the state’s 13 rural counties.

One of the most sweeping comes from Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale. She wants to repeal the constitutional provision requiring a hands-off approach by lawmakers. She said voters are unaware that once they approve something it’s pretty much forever.

“It makes it difficult for the legislature to deal with unintended consequences,” she said. “In order to manage economic changes, the legislature needs to have the ability to adjust policy accordingly.”

She acknowledged, though, that outright repeal would require ratification by the voters who approved the restriction in the first place. So she said she may be willing to accept something less drastic, perhaps a required disclosure on future ballot measures that these can’t be altered by lawmakers.

But Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs said the reason voters approved the restriction is because lawmakers “ignored the voice of people that were passing initiatives.”

She noted that in 1996 voters approved the first medical marijuana measure. But the following year lawmakers, insisting that voters must have made a mistake, effectively repealed it by making it subject to federal approval, something that was not going to happen.

So in 1998 proponents put the original measure back on the ballot where it passed again. And they also secured adoption of the Voter Protection Act, which says lawmakers can alter initiatives only if they “further the purpose” of the original measure and only on a three-fourths vote.

Ducey is reacting cautiously to the ideas. “I’m someone who believes you must respect the will of the people,” he said.

But the governor also said he is concerned that laws get cemented in place even as situations change. Ducey said there should be a requirement to review all statutes regularly, whether approved by lawmakers or voters.

“I really love the idea of sunsetting laws, he said. And that would mean sending anything voters approved back to the ballot every decade, forcing proponents to again marshal support.

Guns present a different issue. With certain exceptions like schools and courthouses, nothing in state law specifically makes public buildings off-limits to weapons.

But the law says the operator of the building can declare that guns are not permitted simply by putting a sign at each public entrance. Those who ignore the signs are subject to arrest.

The proposal would allow buildings to be declared gun-free zones only if the operators also install metal detectors and have guards to ensure that no one there is armed.

Supporters say the problem with the current system is that those who obey laws will leave their weapons outside or check them in lockers that are supposed to be available; those who are criminals will ignore the signs. More to the point, that strips the law-abiding citizens of their ability to defend themselves from mayhem.

Ducey is taking no formal position other than to say he is “a supporter of the Second Amendment.”

No less controversial are abortion measures.

The historic 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade said states cannot forbid women from terminating a pregnancy. But the high court has said states can regulate the procedure to protect the health of the mother and the life of the fetus and also can outlaw abortions on “viable” fetuses.

So far, Arizona lawmakers have approved – and courts have upheld – a 24-hour waiting period, a requirement for an in-person appointment with a doctor and an ultrasound. But other rules, like banning abortions after the 20th week and limiting the use of certain drugs to induce an abortion, have been struck down.

That, however, is unlikely to keep abortion foes from trying measures here being used by their counterparts in other states.

Aside from that 20-week ban – the point at which some argue a fetus can feel pain – there have been efforts to require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. And Texas is pushing ahead with a law that requires the formal burial of fetal remains.

Ducey, who has previously signed various abortion-related measures, suggested anything else that reaches his desk this year will get similar approval. “I’m pro-life and I’m always going to be on the side of life,” he said.

The minimum wage hike (Prop 206) will have another impact this session. State health officials say they need more money because the higher wage requirement will force them to increase what they pay to private companies that provide direct in-home and nursing care.

The current reimbursement rate was negotiated based on last year’s $8.05 minimum.

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, wants to go further, suggesting a “do-over.” He said voters might have second thoughts once they figure out there is a $50 million pricetag for the coming six months, though the federal government will absorb part of that.

But there is potential fallout for lawmakers telling voters that they really did not understand what they were adopting and that it’s OK to pay care workers less than those who ask customers, “Do you want fries with that?”

Ducey said only that he’s “all ears” in listening to whatever lawmakers propose on the subject.