As Arizona celebrates its 95th anniversary this week, lawmakers are considering substantial changes to the initiative process carved into the state's Constitution so residents could skirt the Legislature and create their own laws.
Critics fear the proposals will reduce the powers Arizona residents have enjoyed since the Progressive Era of the early 20th century.
But supporters describe the revisions as reform measures that would create a more open process and protect Arizona against laws that could do more harm than good. Some lawmakers want the power to modify a voter-approved law after a few years, and others want initiatives' authors to hold public hearings before submitting their proposals.
Rep. Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, has written proposals that he said would correct flaws in the initiative process. Public hearings on several of them will take place at 1:30 p.m. today in the House Government Committee.
When Arizona became a state on Feb. 14, 1912, Progressive Era principles including the initiative process became part of the Constitution. In 2006, Arizonans approved more initiatives than any other state in the country.
Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr is among those who question the Legislature's attempts to limit the power of initiatives.
"A lot of times, in the name of reform, people erect additional obstacles," Bahr said. "In this case, the reform would definitely create problems, especially for grass-roots organizations."
Arizonans approved the Voter Protection Act in 1998 to ensure that voter-approved laws would be protected from Legislative interference. The framers of the Arizona Constitution would have approved of that because they intended to put the little guy's interests over big-money interests, said Paul Bender, an ASU law professor who teaches Arizona constitutional law.
"There are trade-offs here," Bender said about the Voter Protection Act and direct democracy.
"But the framers opted for the people's power over Legislative prerogatives."
Adams said the Voter Protection Act needs to be reformed because it "does not allow us to adjust for changing circumstances. Arizona is the fastest-growing state in the nation. What works for Arizona in 2007 may not work for Arizona in 2012."
One of Adams' proposals would allow the Legislature to change initiatives four years after they are passed by voters.
A similar measure was shot down in the Senate Judiciary Committee
last week, 3-2.
Sen. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, proposed a five-year "cooling-off period" in which voter-approved laws would reign, but after that the Legislature could make changes.
When the Legislature makes laws, it has open meetings to assess the merits of a measure. Bills are considered in the Senate and House before being approved by the governor. Even then, Adams said, the Legislature makes errors.
People who propose laws by initiative do not need to take in any outside input. Adams wants initiatives to be debated in a public hearing of a legislative council. The initiatives' authors would not be bound to make any changes.
He said that if his measure had been in place, discussion of a minimum-wage initiative approved by voters in November might have happened earlier. After voters approved an increase in the minimum wage, questions arose about whether developmentally disabled workers should have been included in the increase.
Under Adams' proposal, the legislative council also would write the measure's title, which has raised concerns among public interest advocates.
"Public input is always good, but if it's a hearing that could let the Legislature tinker with an initiative, that's a whole other can of worms," said Carla, the one-named executive director of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. Her group was part of the campaign to get Proposition 106, a trust-land protection measure, on the ballot.
Bahr said a legislative council made up of legislators likely would be able to set the agenda for the public hearing and decide who speaks and for how long.
Adams also is proposing that:
• Signatures be collected in multiple counties, which Bahr said would be a cost burden to grass-roots organizations.
• Petitions disclose who is funding the initiative.
• Voters learn at the ballot whether signatures were collected by paid signature gatherers or volunteers.
• People earn a set salary or get paid by the hour for collecting signatures. People now are paid by the signature, so they have an incentive to make up names, Adams said.
Adams said the initiative process is important, and he is not trying to cut the power of the people to make laws.
If his measures are not accepted, Adams predicted lawmakers would consider more-drastic measures to upend the initiative process.
For example, Adams pointed to a Senate proposal that has not been scheduled for a hearing.
Sen. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, introduced a measure that would stop an initiative from going to the ballot unless the Legislature had considered it first.
That means a measure would never go before voters unless a lawmaker was willing to introduce it.
Such steps do not sit well with Carla.
"Unfortunately, recently, citizens have had to use it (the initiative) more and more because they are not being listened to by the majority of the Legislature," she said.
Bypassing the Legislature
Residents have passed laws that first were rejected by the Legislature.
• Minimum-wage increase: Arizona voters in November increased the minimum wage to $6.75, from $5.15 per hour.
• Smoking ban: Starting in May, Arizona will enact a voter-approved smoking ban in all public places.
• Indian gaming extension: In 2002, voters extended an Indian gaming compact with the state that the Legislature failed to approve.
Initiative vs. referendum
• To bypass lawmakers and go directly to voters, residents can propose laws or constitutional amendments by collecting enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot.
• If the Legislature wants voters to decide on law or constitutional amendment, it can put the proposal on the ballot, called a referendum.
• Initiatives, referendums and the recall of public officials collectively are called direct democracy.
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