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7:28 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Expert panel debates state ballot initiatives

FLAGSTAFF – An independent group should review ballot propositions before their language is final, Arizona Treasurer Carol Springer said Friday.

Springer, a Prescott resident and former state senator, was among a distinguished list of panelists who debated the pros and cons of direct democracy in the form of ballot propositions Friday.

They were part of the annual Arizona Economic Forum, which seeks to encourage an exchange of ideas about topics of statewide importance. The forum took place Thursday through Saturday in Flagstaff. Springer is president of the forum.

Springer also advocated getting rid of the short explanations of propositions on the ballots, calling it "spin." Fellow panelist Chuck Coughlin, founder of the HighGround public relations firm and former deputy chief of staff to former governor Fife Symington, agreed.

Someone should check propositions for adherence to the Constitution and statutes before they go on the ballot, too, Secretary of State Betsey Bayless said.

The state should reduce the number of signatures citizens need to get an initiative on the ballot, in exchange for the citizens promising not to use paid circulators, said panelist Alfredo Gutierrez, a Democrat who served 14 years in the state Legislature and was both majority and minority leader in the Senate at various times.

At least one person in the audience, state Sen. Ed Cirillo, R-Sun City West, had issues with the initiative process itself. He said citizens might do away with the state income tax, and "What kind of way is that to govern?"

However, none of the panelists said they want Arizona to stop being one of the 24 states that allow statewide citizen initiatives. Panelist Christopher Smith, executive director of the Goldwater Institute think tank, said the initiative process is a counterbalance to tyranny.

Despite their support of the process, several panelists lamented some propositions that citizens have approved, especially the Clean Elections Act. Coughlin predicted some candidates would abuse the act this fall. The act will lead to "complete chaos," said Jay Heiler, vice president of the APCO Worldwide public affairs firm and Symington's former chief of staff.

The public approved the act because its government wasn't listening, said Gutierrez, who noted Arizona has become a national testing ground for initiatives because it's relatively inexpensive to get them on the ballot.

Several panelists also said the state's initiative process needs reform.

"We've got to continue to refine the process of direct democracy," Heiler said.

Some panelists agreed with the Goldwater Institute that more sources of information about propositions would help.

Last year's initiative that changed the legislative and congressional redistricting process was a fundamental change in government, yet never received any lively public debate, Heiler said.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee now writes analyses of propositions for the public. It's absurd to think the JLBC can write an objective analysis of something like an initiative to loosen marijuana laws, Gutierrez said.

Last year the state finally gave her the authority to mail proposition publicity pamphlets to every voter, Bayless said. She also saw lots of participation at election town halls around the state.

The real problem with Arizona government is the breakdown in relations between the Legislature and the public, said Robert Robb, Arizona Republic editorial columnist. It happened when the Legislature gutted a drug reform initiative, he said.

Voters responded with the Voter Protection Act, said Robb and Heiler. The 1998 initiative prohibits the governor from vetoing an initiative or referendum, prohibits the Legislature from repealing an initiative or referendum, and allows the Legislature to make only technical changes, with a three-fourths super majority vote.

Robb doesn't like the act, and neither does Smith.

However, "there are no serious flaws in the initiative process," said Smith, calling it a "very powerful and justified tool."