Arizona House to debate bills targeting voter initiative rules

PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona House has scheduled Thursday debates on a series of Republican-sponsored bills that would alter how citizen initiatives make the ballot that Democratic opponents and voting rights groups decry as an assault on voters' right to make their own laws.

The debates come as Republicans angered over voter approval of a minimum wage increase initiative in November and a failed marijuana legalization effort mount a full-court press to alter the rules that have been in place since statehood.

Among the bills is one that makes major changes in how signatures to qualify initiatives for the ballot are collected. It bans paying per signature and imposes a raft of new rules on the process.

One bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Vince Leach, of Tucson, with backing from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They 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.

Another proposal that was debated in the House Appropriations Committee late Wednesday asks voters to require signatures to be collected from each legislative district rather than statewide.

Republican Sen. Don Shooter, of Yuma, says 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."

Two others would repeal or modify the Voter Protection Act, which bars the Legislature from making substantive changes to voter-approved laws. Both are sponsored by Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, of Scottsdale.

One of Ugenti-Rita's bills would ask voters to repeal the Voter Protection Act, while another 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 ¾ vote of the Legislature.

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