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Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signs second proposal to tighten citizen initiatives

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Friday signed the second of three proposals pushed by the state’s top business group that together amount to a major tightening of laws overseeing citizen initiatives.

Ducey approved a bill that makes it easier to keep citizen initiatives off the ballot by tightening the legal standard proponents must meet. He said in a statement that voter-approved laws allow substantial and permanent changes to state law.

“This commonsense legislation preserves the integrity of the process by ensuring that those seeking to make lasting changes to our laws comply with current laws, brings parity to the initiative and referendum processes, and introduces a number of voter education functions to ensure those who engage in the initiative process are educated and equipped to comply with state law,” he said.

Democrats and voting rights groups call the measures an all-out assault on citizens’ rights to pass their own laws that was included in the Arizona Constitution at statehood. Republican backers in the House and Senate called them reforms that were needed to ensure that voter-enacted laws that can’t be changed by Legislature are fully vetted and comply with all laws.

The governor signed legislation late last month that makes it easier for opponents to sue over initiatives and bans paying petition circulators by the signature.

The third measure awaits a final Senate vote after the House approved it on Thursday after an hours-long debate. It imposes a slew of registration and penalty provisions on citizen initiative petition circulators and initiative backers.

The measures were pushed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry after the November passage of an initiative raising the minimum wage. The minimum wage initiative and a failed marijuana legalization proposal were the last straw for the Chamber, which made initiative law changes its top legislative priority and dispatched lawyers and lobbyists to the Capitol to push the measures.

Republican lawmakers have been railing for years about the initiative process, concerned that a 1998 initiative that created the Voter Protection Act essentially made it impossible for them to revise or repeal voter-approved laws. That feeling was on display at the end of an hours-long debate Thursday evening when Republican Speaker J.D. Mesnard explained why he was backing the measure.

“It’s not about voter rights, it’s about proposing a law,” Mesnard said. “And if a law that is proposed, if passed at the ballot, is impossible to change for all practical purposes, there is no room for error.”

Democrats said majority Republicans were targeting initiatives because voters pass measures like the minimum wage increase that are popular but not embraced by Republicans.

“We are destroying that Constitutional right through this bill and through other bills that are being considered or have already been signed by the governor,” Democratic Sen. Katie Hobbs said during debate earlier in the week. “We’re taking rights away from the people who elected us here.”

Other 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,” Rep. Isela Blanc, a Tempe Democrat, said Thursday. “And so what they’ve done is they’ve come to us to change the rules of the game.”

House Bill 2244 signed by Ducey on Friday 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.

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.

House Bill 2404, which Ducey signed last month, makes it illegal to pay petition circulators by the signature and makes it easier to sue to block initiatives.

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