- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - Republicans on an Arizona House committee on Thursday approved changes to the state’s initiative process that are being pushed by business groups angered by voter approval of a minimum wage increase.

The overhaul of the signature-gathering process for citizen initiatives was opposed by voter-rights groups and Democrats. They call it the biggest change to the citizen-driven process since statehood.

House Bill 2404 by Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, makes it harder for backers to get initiatives on the ballot by changing how they gather qualifying signatures and adding a host of new regulations. Leach and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry argue the changes are needed to prevent fraud and make signatures easier to challenge, and dispute that they’re trying to make it harder for citizens to write their own laws.

“In a nutshell it reforms incentives for fraud and forgery by ending the practice of paying for circulators per signatures,” Leach told the House Government Committee. “This in no way is designed to limit initiatives that are coming from grassroots. It is in no way designed to interfere with anybody that definitely has a grass roots rising, that says we want to take care of this particular issue.”

Voting rights advocates countered that the measure will make it almost impossible to get an initiative on the ballot, since there’s no realistic way volunteer signature-gatherers can collect enough to qualify. It requires more than 156,000 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot and more than 225,000 to amend the state Constitution. In practice, backers must collect far more than that to ensure there are enough valid signatures.



In addition to the ban on paying per signature, the legislation also makes backers liable for violations by individual circulators, requires them to post large financial bonds and makes it so anyone, not just the Secretary of State, can challenge the validity of an initiative.

“This bill is killing the initiative process by small cuts and I believe because of that goes against the original intent of the founders of our state,” said Doris Marie Provine, a board member of the Arizona Advocacy Network, which works to expand access to the ballot.

The right of voters to create their own laws was in the Constitution adopted upon Arizona statehood in 1912. In November, voters approved a Chamber-opposed minimum wage increase that the business group is now challenging in court.

Provine said arguments advanced by the Chamber and business groups that out of state interests can hijack the initiative process are insulting to voters, and that the Legislature could get a super-majority to change a really bad initiative, the focus of another effort to change state law backed by the Chamber.

Garrick Taylor, a Chamber lobbyist, testified that the changes are needed to ensure the integrity of the election process.

“We believe these are smart, needed guardrails around the petition process,” he said.

The law also requires backers to turn in signatures monthly rather than all at once on the filing deadline. Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, noted that was likely designed to give opponents like the Chamber more time to scour signature sheets for a potential legal challenge.

Taylor didn’t dispute that.

“There is very little time for the opposition to give a full vetting to those signatures,” he said.

The Chamber worked with committee chair Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, to craft an amendment that removed a requirement that circulators pay to register with the state, one requiring them to take classes and another setting up an enforcement fund.

Clark was thankful for that, but said the legislation still is a major overhaul that will stifle the right of voters to make their own laws.

“This is the biggest wholesale change in our initiative process that we’ve seen since the Constitution,” Clark said. “We’ve gone over this line by line and there are a lot of questions involving even the legality of some of these things.”

The measure passed the House Government Committee on a 5-3 party-line vote and now heads to the full House after a routine constitutionality review.

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