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1:37 AM Wed, Nov. 14th

State bans pay-per signature initiatives

Governor signs bill that could limit citizen petition drives

PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey wasted no time Thursday signing legislation that opponents say would make it tougher to get citizen initiatives on the ballot, but supporters say will reduce fraud in signature gathering.

Ducey signed the measure into law less than three hours after it received final House approval. House Bill 2404 bans groups seeking to put an initiative on the ballot from paying petition circulators by the signature and makes it easier to challenge citizen initiatives in court.

The governor’s action gives Republicans and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry a victory in one of their top priorities of the year. House Bill 2404 was approved by the Senate Wednesday, with no votes from Democrats, and the House followed Thursday, also without Democratic support.

The action came on the same day that three other initiative measures died for the session. Two would have asked voters in the 2018 general election to change or repeal the Voter Protection Act, which bars the Legislature from changing voter-approved laws. The third would require initiative backers to collect signatures in all 30 legislative districts.

Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, backer of the two Voter Protection Act measures, said Senate President Steve Yarbrough didn’t tell her why he quashed her bills.

“I was prepared and ready to go,” she said. “It’s a bill that I’m passionate about and I’ll probably address it in some fashion next session.”

Senate spokesman Mike Philipsen confirmed Yarbrough would not allow the measure to advance. They could be revived next year and still make the 2018 ballot.

Ducey called the measure he signed a “common-sense reform” that strikes the right balance to ensure the initiative process continues to work well.

“We live in a state where citizens have significant input into the policy-making process,” Ducey said in a statement. “That’s a good thing, and this tweak to the law helps ensure the integrity of ballot measures moving forward.”

Democrats and voting rights activists opposed the proposal, saying it will make it harder to get citizen initiatives on the ballot. They note it doesn’t apply to candidates for governor or other offices.

The Chamber proposed the measure after voters in November approved a minimum wage increase opposed by business groups and they fought against a marijuana legalization proposal that failed at the polls.

Republicans say the measure is needed to cut fraud in signature gathering, but provided no evidence of actual fraud during Senate committee hearings. In addition to banning per-signature payment, the bill also makes it easier to challenge initiatives in court.

The proposal is one of the most contentious of the 2017 legislative session, and comes after years of Republican-backed measures that Democrats say amount to voter suppression.

Chamber officials have said they hope barring paying per signature will keep out-of-state organizations from coming into Arizona and backing measures the Chamber opposes.

But Democratic state Rep. Ken Clark of Phoenix said the increased costs won’t prevent special interests from either the right or left from pushing ballot initiatives.

“Any of these groups are still going to be able to afford the 25 to 30 percent increase in the costs of collecting signatures. Who will not are the citizens,” Clark said on the House floor. “We should be concerned about this, because the damage to our initiative and referendum process from that cost alone is demonstrably greater than any fraud we’ve seen.”

House Republican Speaker J.D. Mesnard pushed back against the proposition that the minimum wage increase prompted the measure, noting that former Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano had a similar proposal about a decade ago. He also pointed to Oregon, where a similar ban is credited with cutting the percentage of invalid signatures, and said true citizen lawmaking doesn’t need payment.