- Associated Press - Thursday, March 16, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - An Arizona Senate panel dominated by Republicans rejected concerns from voting rights activists Thursday and advanced legislation that opponents say will make it harder to get citizen initiatives on the ballot.

Proponents say the changes are needed to eliminate fraud in the signature gathering process required to qualify measures for the ballot.

The bill makes it easier to challenge signatures and bars petition circulators from being paid per signature collected.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 2404 on a 4-3 party-line vote. It has already passed the House, so approval by the full Senate would send it to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk.

The bill by Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, is strongly backed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which was dismayed by November’s voter approval of a minimum wage increase. Leach said the current signature gathering process is prone to fraud.

“Simply put, Arizonans have lost confidence in our initiative process,” Leach told the panel. “This process has become subject to fraud, some would say rife with fraud.”

Chamber attorney Brett Johnson, an elections law expert, told the committee that the measure is designed to handle fraud, but more importantly make sure signatures are gathered correctly so the integrity of the process is protected.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, directly challenged Johnson on the fraud claims pushed by Leach and other proponents.

“Are there significant instances of rampant fraud in the initiative process in Arizona that necessitates the passage of HB2404?” Quezada asked.

“I’m not aware of anything specifically in regard to fraud,” Johnson said. “But process is more important.”

Most circulators are now paid by the signature, rather than hourly. Lawmakers did not include themselves in the ban on paying per signature when they collect to qualify for the ballot. Leach has acknowledged that he used paid circulators to qualify for the ballot last year.

The proposal is one of four making their way through the Legislature in response to the minimum wage increase measure known as Proposition 206, a failed marijuana initiative and other voter-approved measures that rankle Republican lawmakers.

The other three require voter approval. One would require initiative backers to gather signatures in all 30 legislative districts. Two others would change the Voter Protection Act, which bars the Legislature from changing voter approved laws in all but the most minor ways.

Democrats call the measures a blatant attempt to make it more difficult for voters to pass their own laws.

Tomas Robles, who ran the Proposition 206 campaign, said the initiative process is a unique way for citizens to bypass lawmakers when they refuse to take up important issues.

He said he found it unusual that Republican lawmakers and the Chamber, which espouse lifting rules on businesses to let them operate as they want, are adding regulations to companies that gather signatures.

“I do believe that it’s because the Chamber of Commerce is pushing this up that you all are considering this,” Robles said. “And I would like to challenge you all to be leaders and representatives of the people and not the Chamber.”

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