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(Flickr/Joe Gratz)
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Arizona House gives initial OK to bills targeting voter initiatives

(Flickr/Joe Gratz)

PHOENIX — The Arizona House on Thursday gave initial approval to proposals that will ask voters to repeal or revise a 1998 law that keeps lawmakers from repealing or changing voter-approved laws.

The measures that passed on a voice vote late in the evening are part of a concerted effort by Republicans upset with voter passage in November of a minimum wage increase and the cost to battle a failed voter initiative that would have legalized marijuana. Minority Democrats were united in opposition.

The House delayed debate on the most contentious of two other Republican proposals aimed at changing the way voter initiatives make the ballot.

The proposal by Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, was sidelined after House attorneys raised possible constitutional issues with the change he is proposing. An attorney review will not be complete until next week, Shooter said. It also would require voter approval.

The House attorney, Tim Fleming, said earlier in the day that Shooter’s proposal to require 10 percent of the voters in each legislative district to sign petitions may violate the one-man, one vote principle. That’s because there may be more or fewer voters in each district.

A second measure was amended to remove many of the parts that troubled Democrats and voting rights groups and also passed on a voice vote. The proposal by Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, bans paying petition circulators per signatures but no longer contains a bevy of other provisions targeting petition gathering.

Democratic opponents and voting rights groups decry the proposals as assaults on voters’ right to make their own laws.

Republicans 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.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said all three proposals that ask voters for changes honor the Democratic process, while Leach’s signature-gathering bill is designed to designed to avoid fraud.

“It’s not an assault. You do want a process that again is one of integrity, because you’re bypassing the main lawmaking process where things get vetted multiple times over,” Mesnard said in an interview. “If you’re going to bypass that you want to make sure that isn’t done by people forging signatures and that sort of thing.”

Shooter said late Wednesday at an Appropriations Committee hearing that his bill is designed to keep out-of-state backers from pushing initiatives in Arizona.

“This to me addresses the fact that when the founders of Arizona put in the initiative process they did it so so that the people of Arizona could speak,” Shooter said at the meeting. “It has subsequently become a testing ground for every liberal idiocy in the country.”

Testimony from voting rights advocates at the hearing called that into question.

“There’s a whole slew of bills trying to make initiatives even more difficult if not impossible,” said Rivko Knox of the League of Women Voters of Arizona. “And it seems to me that this is a bill that is not trying to address a specific problem that you’re talking about … but more an issue of let’s try to kill initiatives without formally saying to the people `let’s repeal the initiative process.”

The proposals by Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, of Scottsdale, would repeal or modify the Voter Protection Act, which bars the Legislature from making substantive changes to voter-approved laws. One of Ugenti-Rita’s bills would ask voters to repeal the Act, while the other would exempt laws referred to the voters by the Legislature from its provisions.

Republicans argue that the Voter Protection Act, passed in 1998 after lawmakers rescinded some voter-approved measures, ties the hands of the Legislature and locks in spending even during economic downturns. The law prevents changes that do not “further the purpose” of an initiative or referendum and only allow chances with a 3/4 vote of the Legislature.

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