PHOENIX — Republicans who control the Arizona House on Thursday passed two measures that dramatically tighten rules on how citizen initiatives make the ballot and how they can be challenged, adding to a previously passed law restricting how initiative petition circulators can be paid.
Together, the action by the Legislature reassembles a major catch-all bill pushed early in the year by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry in response to the passage of a minimum wage increase.
Republican backers and the Chamber call the measures needed reforms to the initiative process. Democrats and voting rights groups call them an all-out assault on the initiative process that has been in place since statehood. No Democrats voted for the measures, and all Republicans voted yes.
“We have before us one of the gravest decisions we will ever make here,” Democratic Rep. Ken Clark of Phoenix as the House debated one of the bills. “And that is whether to effectively shut down the initiative process for all but…the richest interests inside and outside the state.”
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard in an interview disputed that the measures are designed to gut the initiative process. He later urged House members to pass the law by reading from a section in the Arizona Constitution.
“There shall be enacted registration and other laws to secure the purity of elections and guard against abuses of the elective franchise,” Mesnard said.
The Chamber and Republicans have been upset for years about initiatives they say tie the hands of the Legislature because of a Constitutional amendment known as the Voter Protection Act.
That law bars lawmakers from changing most initiative-created laws, unless they “further the purpose” and pass with a 3/4 vote in the House and Senate.
The minimum wage initiative and a failed measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana use were the final straw for the Chamber.
Chamber President Glenn Hamer said at a pre-session luncheon attended by legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey that reforming the initiative process was a top priority this year.
They followed through, dispatching an elections law attorney and Chamber lobbyists to push the bills.
In a “to-do” list for the remainder of the session Hamer sent out Tuesday, he called for the Legislature to pass the two measures taken up by the House Thursday — House Bill 2244 and Senate Bill 1236. The bills were used to reassemble the original Chamber measure, which had major components stripped out to ease its quick passage.
“The initiative process is lawmaking,” Hamer wrote. “Therefore, we should have a system that reflects the gravity of its potential impact on all aspects of living and doing business in Arizona.”
Democrats directly called out the Chamber, which opposed the minimum wage increase and sued to block it from taking effect after it passed.
“Every time they’ve fought against the minimum wage increase they’ve lost,” said Rep. Isela Blanc, a Tempe Democrat. “And so what they’ve done is they’ve come to us to change the rules of the game.”
House Bill 2244 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 Ducey’s office for his likely signature.
Senate Bill 1236 adds a slew of registration and penalty provisions on petition circulators and initiative committees. It needs final Senate passage before heading to the governor.