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Arizona House, Senate scrap initiative revamp debate amid division

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PHOENIX – Arizona House Republicans voted Wednesday to give the attorney general more power over the ballot language for citizen initiatives. But they scrapped a debate over a contentious plan to make it harder to put initiatives in front of voters.

The election law changes are part of a yearslong effort by Republicans and business interests that oppose many proposed initiatives the GOP-controlled Legislature would never approve.

Amid opposition from some Republicans, the House and Senate dropped plans to debate twin proposals requiring proponents to collect signatures from all 30 legislative districts for an initiative to make the ballot. The Arizona Constitution currently has no geographic restriction.

The measures could still reappear, but even Senate President Karen Fann said no solution to mollify opponents was apparent.

Democrats believe the initiative qualification changes and other election-related bills that reappeared Wednesday are part of GOP efforts to lock in power in the wake of Democratic advances in the 2018 election.

“They’re scared, because the momentum is going our way and it’s been going our way,” Democratic Sen. Lupe Contreras said. “So once we catch any momentum they’ll come to something like this.”

Proponents of the pulled initiative measure argue rural areas are ignored by initiative backers. Initiative opponents say they would allow any single district to block ballot measures.

In related action Wednesday, the Senate rejected tougher voter registration drive rules after some GOP members joined with all Democrats to reject the proposal. The measure would have levied criminal penalties for workers who didn’t quickly turn in registration forms, barred payment for collection efforts and made it a felony to alter a record.

“I don’t want to criminalize people for trying to register people to vote,” GOP Sen. Heather Carter said.

The House approved the measure shifting power to the attorney general after an acrimonious debate.

House Republicans backed the measure, and it passed on a party-line 31-29 vote. Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich controversially claimed authority to rewrite ballot language last year in a last-minute change for Proposition 127, which would have mandated greater adoption of renewable energy.

The ballot title describes an initiative and the effect of a yes or no vote and is seen as extremely influential in the outcome. Under current law, the secretary of state writes the ballot title and the attorney general can approve or reject it. The GOP bill would add the authority to modify it.

Democrats said the bill would give a partisan official the unilateral authority to boost initiatives he favors or weigh down those he opposes with unpopular words and phrases.

“This is, I believe, a blatant power grab,” said Democratic Rep. Randy Friese of Tucson.

Republicans rejected that prospect, saying the courts and voters can rein in an attorney general if he goes too far.

“If in the rare event we have a rogue attorney general who does something nefarious, he ultimately has to go up for re-election and is accountable to all of us,” Mesa Republican Rep. Kelly Townsend said.

The measure also requires people circulating initiative petitions to register with the state using a notarized form and adds new restrictions on who can collect signatures, including barring people convicted of felonies or fraud, forgery and identity theft charges.

“The whole focus of this bill is to make sure these paid circulators aren’t criminals and that they know what the rules are,” said Republican Rep. John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills.

Democrats said it’s another attempt to add a layer of onerous hoops for people to jump through before they can exercise their right to direct democracy. The legislation is “expanding the government’s ability to infringe on the individual’s right of expression,” said Democratic Rep. Diego Rodriguez of Phoenix.

GOP efforts to make it harder to put initiatives on the ballot heated up after voters in 2016 passed an initiative raising the minimum wage and narrowly rejected a marijuana legalization measure. Lawmakers have passed legislation in recent years that make it easier to disqualify signatures, revamped rules on signature collection and made it easier to sue to block initiatives that qualify for the ballot.

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