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2:58 PM Fri, July 20th

Group fighting against new initiative limits funnels cash into lawsuit

Suspends effort to use paid circulators, conceding referendum drive challenging

PHOENIX — Foes of new limits on the ability of people to craft and enact their own laws have suspended their effort to used paid circulators to gather signatures to quash two new requirements.

Campaign manager Joe Yuhas said Thursday that all the financial resources of Voters of Arizona, a coalition of individuals and groups that are involved with initiatives, are being funneled into convincing a judge that one of the changes violates the state constitution.

What that means, he said, is no cash for anything else.

Yuhas said that, strictly speaking, the political campaign to refer — and overturn — what the legislature did is not over. He said volunteers continue to try to get the 75,321 valid signatures on each of two separate petitions.

But Yuhas, who has worked on multiple petition campaigns, conceded that the chances of putting both measures before voters are sharply diminished without paid circulators.

“It’s speculative,” he said. “We know from the outset that a referendum drive is very challenging,” Yuhas said, with backers having only 90 days from the end of the legislative session to gather the signatures, a deadline of Aug. 8.

“So we knew it was an uphill challenge to begin with,” he said.

What the suspension of the gathering of signatures with paid circulators is likely to mean that, effective Aug. 9, it will no longer be legal for organizers of future petition drives to pay circulators based on the number of signatures they collect.

Supporters of that law, HB 2404, say paying per signature invites fraud as circulators seek to boost their earnings. Foes said that circulators are paid based on the number of valid signatures they get, arguing that the aim is to make it more difficult and more expensive for voters to propose and enact their own laws — laws that the Republican-controlled legislature does not like.

Less clear is the fate of HB 2244, which would require judges to invalidate initiative petitions — those that propose new laws — if there is not “strict compliance” with all election requirements. That measure would overturn Arizona Supreme Court rulings that said voters should get a chance to make a final decision on proposals if petition drives are in “substantial compliance” with the law.

Like HB 2404, foes have been seeking to refer that, too, to the ballot. But they have another path of attack, asking Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens to conclude lawmakers had no right to do what they did. It is that legal effort that Yuhas said is swallowing up the funds that otherwise would have gone to paid circulators for both measures.

On Friday, attorney David Cantelme, representing legislative leaders, argued to Stephens there’s no legal basis for the challenge. He said there’s no evidence that the stricter requirement will impair the ability of the groups that are challenging the law to put future measures before voters.

And even if that is true — a point he is not conceding — Cantelme said they can’t challenge the law based on their fears it will harm their initiative until they actually have a petition drive underway and someone is asking a court to kill it. Put another way, the challenge to the law is premature until there’s an actual case.

“It’s not until the court makes its decision and either orders a measure off the ballot or back on the ballot can there be any actual result,” Cantelme said. “Until then, it’s fanciful.”

But attorney Andrew Gaona told Stephens she can and should decide — and now — whether the stricter standard for initiatives is unconstitutional.

He said individuals who are weighing putting measures on the ballot in 2018 testified that the new standard will mean not only higher costs to gather the signatures but it is also depressing fundraising efforts as donors know it means less likelihood of success. And Gaona said that means HB 2244, if it takes effect, will effectively kill future initiative drives before they get started, preventing groups from making their case to the public that the law needs to be changed.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the circulation of petitions is ‘core political speech,’” he told the judge. “The chilling of speech is, in and of itself, an injury.”

Stephens said she will rule by Aug. 4. Whichever side loses is virtually certain to appeal.