- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona Senate on Wednesday debated and then quickly approved legislation backed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry that makes it easier to keep citizen initiatives off the ballot by tightening the legal standard proponents must meet.

With the 16-14 vote Republican senators took a major step toward reassembling a catchall bill tightening initiative requirements that was crafted after voters approved a minimum wage increase in November.

The House also has a measure targeting initiatives that was part of the original legislation. That bill adds a slew of registration and penalty provisions on petition circulators and initiative committees.

The two components were stripped from an earlier bill already signed by Gov. Doug Ducey that bars paying circulators per signature.

The measure approved by the Senate with all Democrats and one Republican opposed on Wednesday will allow citizen initiatives to be thrown out for mere paperwork or language errors, even if the proposed law complies in other respects to the law. The current standard allows such minor errors if the intent of measure remains clear. It now heads to the House.

Democratic Sen. Katie Hobbs said the right guaranteed by the Arizona Constitution for citizens to write their own laws is endangered by the series of measures. The citizen initiative was included in the Constitution adopted at statehood in 1912.

“We are destroying that Constitutional right through this bill and through other bills that are being considered or have already been signed by the governor,” Hobbs said. “We’re taking rights away from the people who elected us here.”

But Republican backers said the tightened standard is needed to ensure that special interest groups backing voter initiatives are following the law when they craft them and collect signatures to qualify them for the ballot.

“What this bill does is it just requires committees that file initiatives to follow the Arizona Constitution and Arizona laws. That’s all it does,” said Republican Sen. Debbie Lesko. “It does not take away any rights.”

The minimum wage increase and the Chamber-backed effort to beat back a marijuana legalization initiative in November angered Republicans and led the Chamber to target the initiative process this year. The three measures together will make it more difficult for initiative backers to collect signatures and survive court challenges and will allow monetary penalties for backers whose workers break the law, even without their knowledge.

At a hearing on the House measure late last month, the volunteer lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Arizona told the House Appropriations Committee that together the proposals amount to a frontal assault on the initiative process.

“The number of bills in this legislative session attempting to weaken or make it almost impossible or make it very difficult for the initiative process to go forward is amazing,” said the League’s Rivka Knox. She noted that there’s no evidence of fraud or other issues with initiatives.

“If it isn’t broken, why try to fix it,” Knox said. “Please show respect for the voters.”

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