House votes to toughen requirements for ballot initiatives

PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers agreed Wednesday to ask voters to throw another hurdle in the path of their ability to write their own laws.

HCR2029 would leave in place the existing number of signatures required to put a measure on the ballot. That is based on a percentage of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

But it would add the additional burden of having to obtain signatures in each of the state’s 30 legislative districts — and in proportion to the number of gubernatorial votes in each district.

Using the 2014 election results, it takes 150,642 valid signatures on petitions to propose a statutory change, equivalent to 10 percent of those who turned out. Constitutional changes require 15 percent — 225,963 signatures — to get on the ballot.

Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said extending that across the state has implications.

For example, Clark said if the change were approved, anyone wanting a constitutional change would need to gather 3,750 signatures in his Phoenix district based on the number of residents who voted for governor in 2014.

But in the district of Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, which runs from Yuma to the western suburbs of Phoenix, circulators would need the signatures of 6,856.

And in the East Valley district of House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, it would take 8,308 signatures.

That, he said, is unfair. Clark said that having to gather more signatures in one district than another based on voter turnout — districts that are supposed to have roughly equal population — gives the residents of that district an effective veto power to keep something from getting on the ballot.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said this would be a great tool for those who want to kill an initiative in its infancy, before it actually makes it to the ballot.

“All an interloper, somebody from out of state, would ever have to do to stop a good initiative, is pour a ton of money into one, small legislative district,” she said, denying the needed margin in just that one legislative district. “And now the initiative is dead.”

Shooter was unperturbed by letting a single legislative district — perhaps his — kill a measure that might be popular in the other 29 districts.

“If that’s the case, I’m a happy boy,” he quipped.

The 33-23 vote sends the measure to the Senate. But even if it is approved there, it still requires voter ratification in 2018.

And there’s another potential hurdle: Clark said he believes the change would run afoul of constitutional equal protection provisions. He said even if voters give their OK a lawsuit is likely.

Shooter disagreed, saying a similar Nevada law was upheld by a federal appellate court.

This is one of five separate measures being advanced by the Republican-controlled legislature at the behest of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other business interests. They are particularly incensed that voters last year approved a hike in the minimum wage, from $8.05 an hour to $10 now — and $12 by 2020 — along with a requirement for paid sick leave.

One would forbid paying circulators based on the number of signatures they gather. Two others would roll back the 1998 Voter Protection Act that bars lawmakers from tinkering with has been approved at the ballot.

And another would require that advertising for all future ballot measures to contain a warning that, once approved, they could not be altered by the legislature.

All have advanced on pretty much a party-line basis.

Mesnard suggested that Democrats were being disingenuous, particularly in voting against the ban on paying circulators on a per-signature basis. He pointed out that when Democrat Janet Napolitano was governor, she asked lawmakers in her 2009 State of the State message to outlaw payment by signature.

But Mesnard was not telling the whole story.

Napolitano did indeed make that request. But he did not acknowledge that she also asked legislators to decrease the number of signatures required to place something on the ballot, something not in this year’s the business-backed Republican package.

Napolitano asked for something else: the ability of sponsors to “give their initiatives misleading names.”

“These changes will help ensure that bureaucratic requirements do not mute the voice of the people in charting our future,” Napolitano told lawmakers.