- Associated Press - Thursday, February 2, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - Legislation backed by a Republican state lawmaker would tighten requirements for paid workers when they’re collecting voter signatures to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot, a move critics say will make it more difficult for backers of voter initiatives to get them on the ballot.

House Bill 2404 by Rep. Vince Leach of Tucson contains a host of other provisions, including requiring a bond from signature gathering companies, requiring payments for circulators to register and setting up a new fund to enforce violations.

The proposal also makes a company that hires signature circulators liable for their actions and subject to a $10,000 fine for each violation.

The effort comes after backers of three initiatives opposed by Republicans and the business community collected enough signatures to get them on the November 2016 ballot.

All three were challenged in court, and one was eventually withdrawn. But a marijuana legalization initiative and one raising the minimum wage went before voters. Only the minimum wage passed.

Leach said Thursday he’s trying to protect the voters, while a lawyer who defended the minimum wage suit says it’s attacking voter rights.

Leach said he’s trying to represent voters who were shocked that the marijuana and wage measures made the ballot.

Leach said he needed to act “when you have voters saying, ‘Where are these people coming from, what are they doing, how did these things get on the ballot at the last minute.’”

The measure, however, doesn’t apply to lawmakers, who also can use paid circulators to gather signatures. Leach, who initially said he had never used paid signature collectors, later said he had erred and acknowledged using them to qualify for the 2016 ballot.

Attorney Jim Barton said the Legislature is pushing the limits of what it can legally do.

“I honestly think at some point they cross the threshold, that they put so many restrictions on the people’s right to initiative that it becomes unconstitutional. And I think they’re approaching that point,” he said.

The proposed legislation is the latest in a string of voting law proposals backed by majority Republicans that Democrats contend are designed to stifle voters’ rights or make campaign funding less transparent.

Just last year, a law criminalizing ballot collection by get-out-the-vote groups passed, as did a huge overhaul of campaign finance rules.

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