House bill outlaws paying people to collect ballot signatures

PHOENIX — The state House late Thursday, Feb. 23, approved a measure designed to make it more difficult to get initiatives on the ballot by limiting the use of paid circulators.

The preliminary vote on HB 2404 came after Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, agreed to drop his demand that groups wanting to circulate initiative petitions buy a $50,000 bond. That came after Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said bonding companies may not write such policies, effectively outlawing petitions.

Also gone from HB 2404 are new registration requirements for petition circulators.

But that leaves what Leach said is his main goal: outlaw the ability of groups who want to put measures on the ballot to pay circulators based on the number of signatures they get.

He contends that will help eliminate the financial incentive for fraud.

Separately, a proposal to increase the burden on getting the signatures — whether with paid-per-signature circulators or volunteers — was pulled from the Thursday debate agenda after House staff attorney Tim Fleming said it may be unconstitutional.

Current law requires those who want to write their own statutes to submit petitions with the names of at least 10 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election. The current burden is 150,642.

The proposal by Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, would apply that test to each of the state’s 30 legislative districts. So if 50,000 people voted for governor in 2014 in the district he represents, at least 5,000 of the signatures needed to put a measure on the ballot would have to come from his district.

And the same rule would apply 29 more times statewide.

Fleming told members of the House Rules Committee on Thursday such a district-by-district requirement may not be constitutional.

He noted Arizona used to have a requirement for candidates for statewide office to get signatures on their nominating petitions from at least three counties. The state stopped enforcing that law when election officials conceded it was illegal.

Based on that, the Rules Committee refused to clear HCR 2029 for floor debate.

But House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said that does not necessarily kill the proposal. He said the staff attorneys just wanted more time to study the issue.

The two measures are part of a package of five bills that opponents contend are a major assault on the right of Arizonans to create their own laws and keep them free from legislative tinkering.

Aside from the two proposals dealing with signature gathering, the House late Thursday approved two measures that could undermine the Voter Protection Act.

That constitutional provision says that once something gains voter approval it can be amended only with a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate. And the only changes allowed are those that “further the purpose’’ of the original initiative, with outright repeal forbidden.

It was enacted by voters in 1998 after state lawmakers repealed the state’s first voter-approved medical marijuana law in 1996.

One version, HCR 2002 asks voters to kill the Voter Protection Act outright, freeing lawmakers to alter not just future ballot measures but those already approved. That includes the newly approved Proposition 206, which increased the state’s minimum wage over the objection of business interests that helped craft all of the changes in initiative laws.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said her constituents see this as “an attack on the will of the voters.’’

“She may be right,’’ Mesnard responded. But he pointed out that, as a constitutional change, it would require voter approval in November.

“This would give them the chance,’’ he said.

The House also approved a scaled-back version of the same measure. HCR 2007, if approved by voters, would limit the power of lawmakers to repeal voter-approved measures to only those proposes they sent to the ballot themselves.

That would keep legal protections in place for initiatives like the minimum wage.

But it would free legislators to ignore two separate items referred to the ballot which now mandate that they boost state aid to schools annually to account for inflation. And it would permit them to ignore provisions of Proposition 123, approved just last year, requiring the state to put an extra $3.5 billion into public education over the next decade.

The fight over Leach’s bill centers on his contention that paying people by the signature makes the process more ripe for fraud.

Technically speaking, HB 2404 does not make it illegal to pay people to gather signatures. But it spells out that payment cannot be on a per-name basis, the method now used by companies to encourage people to get as many signatures as necessary.

Supporters of HB 2404 said that still leaves the option of an all-volunteer effort. But representatives of various groups that have used the initiative process to enact laws said the high number of signatures required has meant no measure using only volunteers has qualified for the ballot in at least three decades.

The House did give preliminary approval Thursday to a fifth measure that would leave the Voter Protection Act in place but require a notice on all advertising for future ballot measures that, once approved, lawmakers are limited in their ability to make changes.

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