PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers voted Wednesday to put new hurdles in the paths of groups that seek to propose their own laws and constitutional amendments.
Senate Bill 1451, approved on a party-line vote by the Republican-controlled House, would impose new requirements on those who go out and gather the signatures. Those include registering with the Secretary of State’s Office, and prohibiting petitions from being circulated by people who have been convicted of certain crimes.
Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, pointed out that the Republican lawmakers who want that change in the initiative process are not applying the same rules to those who circulate their own nominating petitions.
And Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, accused Republican lawmakers of trying to undermine the petition process and make it more difficult, particularly for grass-roots organizations, because they’re unhappy that voters gathered petitions and overturned their 2017 proposal to expand who is eligible for vouchers of taxpayer dollars to attend private and parochial schools.
“Save Our Schools Arizona did not have big money backers,” she said. “These were moms, dads, grandparents and everyday Arizonans who stood up to this legislative body and said ‘no.’”
The potentially greater change would give the attorney general the unilateral power to alter the 50-word description of any measure that appears on every ballot.
The only remedy for someone who disagrees would be to sue. But the approved ballot description generally becomes publicly available only days before ballots are set to be printed, which might not leave enough time to pursue a legal challenge.
“This is a blatant power grab,” argued Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson.
He said current law gives the attorney general the power only to approve or reject the language crafted by the secretary of state. That, said Friese, requires a back and forth between the two elected officials to come up with something on which both can agree.
The change would cement into law what happened last year when a key aide to Attorney General Mark Brnovich altered the description of Proposition 127, an initiative that would have required half of all power generated in Arizona by 2030 to come from renewable sources. Beau Roysden added language saying the renewable energy mandate would occur “irrespective of cost to consumers.”
That was precisely the argument Arizona Public Service was using in its multimillion-dollar campaign to quash the initiative.
Eric Spencer, who was state elections director at the time under Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan, called the new wording “eyebrow raising,” but did not challenge it.
Spencer, now an attorney in private practice, told Capitol Media Services on Wednesday that Brnovich probably has the power to make changes, especially on strictly legal matters. But he questioned how far that goes when making “policy changes” in descriptions.
“Any disagreement between the two offices should be worked out through negotiation, assuming there is still time before the ballot and publicity pamphlet printing deadline,” Spencer said.
That’s what Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said should occur — and will not occur if the law is changed. She said the 50-word description on the ballot is often the only language about the measure that some voters ever see.
The change in SB 1451 is critical because the last election resulted in Democrat Katie Hobbs being elected as secretary of state with Republican Mark Brnovich returned to his office. Putting this language into statute would ensure that, at least for the next four years, it would be the Republican who gets the last word.
Prior changes approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature to the initiative process include a ban on paying petition circulators on a per-signature basis — another provision that lawmakers have not applied to their own petitions — and requiring that petitions be in “strict compliance” with all election laws. The latter change overturned court rulings that petitions need be only in “substantial compliance,” a standard that allows measures to go to the ballot despite technical errors.
These changes, supported by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, followed a series of voter-approved measures opposed by the business community, ranging from a ban on leghold traps on state lands, to allowing the medical use of marijuana, to creating a state minimum wage higher than required by federal law.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the new changes are appropriate. He said the initiative process — the ability of citizens to propose their own laws — has been “perverted” because it has become a tool of out-of-state millionaires. California billionaire Tom Steyer funded Proposition 127.
Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, said SB 1451 will “make it more difficult for wealthy people to come in and turn Arizona into their sandbox.”
But Rep. Raquel Teran, D-Phoenix, said the supporters of this change are not the groups who mounted their own initiative drives when the Legislature failed to act, but the corporations and special interests that unsuccessfully fought those voter-approved changes.
The new law, if approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, also would affect pending initiative drives to put issues on the 2020 ballot.
Of note, that includes a constitutional proposal to require full disclosure of the true sources of money spent on political races, ending the ability of some “dark money” groups to refuse to disclose their donors.
Rep. Cesar Chavez, D-Phoenix, chided Republicans for complaining about “outside influences” on Arizona politics.
He said they complain about Steyer, but not about Charles and David Koch, the conservative billionaires who have funneled money through various groups into campaigns in Arizona.