House could place new hurdle in front of initiatives: fines
Organizers whose hires violate law could be on hook
Republican lawmakers are poised to advance yet another salvo aimed at the initiative process, one that would put even more dampers than already enacted on the right of Arizonans to propose their own laws.
The measure up for debate today, March 29, would subject initiative organizers to $1,000-an-incident fines for any violations of law committed by anyone they hire — or any workers of firms they hire — to collect signatures.
Legislation signed last week by Gov. Doug Ducey banned paying circulators per signature.
Backers said that still preserves the right to use circulators who are paid instead by the hour or some other basis. That is important since not a single measure has qualified for the ballot in at least three decades without some use of paid circulators.
But Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club, which has been involved in several prior initiatives, said the new financial penalties provide yet another deterrent to organizations that need paid circulators from going to the streets with ballot measures. The result, she said, is some will simply choose not to get involved with initiatives.
SB1236, which will be heard by the House Appropriations Committee, also would require that any print advertising for initiatives include a statement that, if enacted, it cannot be repealed or altered by lawmakers but instead must be referred back to the ballot.
Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, conceded that is true. But he said the verbiage is clearly designed to deter voters from supporting a measure.
Today’s effort comes as the Senate Appropriation Committee voted 6-4 Tuesday along party lines for another measure aimed at keeping some measures off the ballot.
HB2244 would require courts to block future initiatives if organizers have not strictly complied with each and every provision of state election laws, whether because of missing words, misfiled documents or even improper page margins. That would overturn at least three prior appellate court rulings that have concluded courts should determine the intent of the organizers and signers and allow a vote if there is “substantial compliance” with election laws.
Sara Agne, attorney for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, testified there’s a reason to require strict compliance. “The initiative process is lawmaking,” said Agne, whose client opposed the successful effort last year to increase the minimum wage.
But Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, chastised colleagues for erecting new hurdles to the constitutional right of people, which has existed since the first days of statehood, to write their own laws when the legislature refuses to act.
“Arizona was founded by a bunch of independent people who wanted to have the authority to call the government on their B.S. when they decided it was necessary,” he said.
That measure now goes to the full Senate.
The ideas for new restrictions on the initiative process originate with Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson.
“The (Arizona) Constitution says that laws will be passed to protect the purity of the ballot,” he told Capitol Media Services. “That’s my driving factor.”
Leach did not dispute that the changes he is pushing will make it more difficult to use paid circulators, both because of the ban on per-signature contracts as well as making initiative organizers financially liable for the acts of the circulators.
But Leach said his proposal does not undermine the right of voters to propose their own laws and constitutional amendments.
Leach said there’s always the opportunity to use volunteers even though that hasn’t occurred in recent history.
Proposing a new state law requires the signatures equal to one out of every 10 people who voted in the last gubernatorial race. That figure is currently 150,642; with the normal rate of signatures being found invalid, circulators really need to turn in closer to 225,000.
A constitutional amendment needs 15 percent of those who voted last time, or at least 225,963 valid signatures.
Leach said those numbers do not deter his desire for new curbs on paid circulators.
“If it was really, really a burning desire, people would be clamoring to sign petitions,” he said.
By contrast, Leach, who represents one of 30 legislative districts, needs only about 400 signatures to put his name on the ballot.
He brushed aside arguments that initiatives are necessary because lawmakers refuse to enact things that voters want, like a ban on leghold traps on public lands, legalizing medical marijuana and raising the minimum wage. Leach said voters who think legislators are unresponsive always have “recourse,” including electing someone else every two years and, if they’re unwilling to wait that long, mounting a recall.
Bahr said what’s in the measure up for debate today creates an unnecessary financial risk for initiative organizers.
She said if a petition circulator commits fraud, the answer is to prosecute that individual.
“If they can demonstrate in a court of law that the organization that was hiring these circulators was complicit in that fraud, encouraging it, prosecute that,” Bahr said. More significant, she said making organizations automatically liable for the acts of circulators will have a “chilling effect” on the desire of groups that need paid circulators to even try to put something on the ballot in the first place.
“What if you’re a tiny organization but you want to be part of something?” she asked.
“You could risk your whole existence,” Bahr said. “And you’re probably not going to do that.”