Initiative Begun to Save Citizens' Initiatives from Arizona GOP's New Laws

By Ray Stern

Phoenix New Times

Arizona voters may get the chance to shoot down changes made by the Arizona Legislature that make it tougher to put citizens' initiatives on the ballot.

Voters of Arizona, co-chaired by former state Attorney General Grant Woods and former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, filed paperwork as a political committee on Thursday to signal the coming launch of a ballot measure to save ballot measures.

"It's about respecting the average person's right to be involved in important policy decisions," Woods said on Friday. "It's really been part and parcel to Arizona from day one — that the power ultimately went to the people, not to the government."

Woods is a Republican; Johnson is a registered Independent and former Democrat.

Joe Yuhas, a political consultant, will help run the effort. He said he expects the campaign to be as diverse as the "Star Wars bar," appealing to multitudes from all different political parties and philosophies.

"They can find common ground — they've all found success with initiatives," Yuhas said.

The campaign will begin collecting signatures when the Legislature adjourns, likely next week, he said. 

The challenges will be in the form of referendums, not citizens' initiatives, because it refers laws created by the Arizona Legislature to the ballot.

A key difference is that referendums need to collect 75,321 valid voter signatures, half as much as for a initiative — but the campaign gets only 90 days to do it.

It's possible the election won't happen, though. 

Yuhas said he expects a lawsuit to be filed that may result in one or more of the Legislature's anti-initiative laws to be found unconstitutional.

The group members could not say whether Voters of Arizona or some other entity will sue.

In the meantime, the campaign will be getting its message out to voters. By next week, the group expects to have a website that will give people more information about the effort and how to make a campaign donation.

Still unknown is whether the referendums will target two or three laws.

Two laws the group opposes have been signed by the governor. A third measure, HB 1236, is still just a bill. It has cleared the House but is still waiting for a vote in the State Senate.

Woods questioned the commitment of Republican lawmakers to the Arizona Constitution, accusing them of
chipping away at the initiative process because they know they can't simply get rid of it.

"I don't think the Republicans on this make any sense whatsoever," Woods said. "They don't want, and frankly they have never wanted, the public to be involved in policy-making."

Yuhas pointed out that the initiative system has benefited both conservatives and liberals even if some Republicans don't acknowledge it. The two signed laws passed the Legislature on party lines, with Republicans presenting a near-unified front in favor of them.

It's true that some citizens' initiatives over the years have boosted conservative causes, like a successful 2004 initiative that limited public benefits for undocumented residents.

Yet the initiative system is best known for how it advances liberal causes that the public wants, but the GOP-dominated Legislature does not want.

Put in the Arizona Constitution by the state's founding fathers, the initiative system has allowed Arizona to evolve not as the ultra-conservative sanctuary sought by Republican lawmakers, but as a "lab of democracy" where voters get the final say.

When Republican lawmakers gutted a successful drug-law-reform initiative in 1996, voters responded two years later with the Voter Protection Act (VPA), which prevents the Legislature from changing a voter-enacted law without a three-quarters majority vote — but even then, the change must further the purpose of the law.

The VPA only increased the hatred of the initiative system by some lawmakers who prefer to keep legislative power to themselves, and Republican leaders have long tried to tweak the initiative system and VPA.

Their anger grew last year because of an adult-use marijuana initiative, which failed 49-51 only after right-wingers spent millions to oppose it, and to the successful initiative that raised Arizona's minimum wage and guaranteed paid sick time for workers.

Lawmakers made substantial changes to the system this legislative session, all without input from voters. 

In March, Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill that bans initiative campaigns from paying petition gatherers for each petition they sign. Critics say it will make initiatives more expensive, which potentially means voters will see fewer options on the ballot.

Last month, Ducey signed another bill into law that applies "strict" criteria to paperwork in the initiative process. 

Petitions will be thrown out if they don't have seven-point type instead of eight, have margins that are three-quarters of an inch at the top instead of half an inch, or meet other criteria to the letter. The previous standard was "substantial compliance," which allowed a judge to decide if thousands of valid voter signatures should be tossed in the trash or not when the format was imperfect.

The bill still waiting on the Senate vote would require petitions to contain a disclaimer about the VPA, and also sets up a system of hefty fines a campaign would have to pay if any of their petition-gatherers violate elections law.

For now, Yuhas said the primary focus of Voters of Arizona will be collecting enough signatures to ensure a spot on the ballot.

If the campaign collects enough valid signatures and beats back the expected legal challenges, the anti-initiative laws would be suspended until the November 2018 election, he said.