Measure would limit paid signature gathering for petitions - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Measure would limit paid signature gathering for petitions

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Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 9:53 pm | Updated: 12:22 am, Fri Jan 14, 2011.

A state lawmaker wants a new hurdle for individuals and groups who propose their own state laws and constitutional amendments.

HCR 2005, proposed by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would require that at least half of the signatures needed to put future issues on the ballot be gathered by those who have not been paid for their efforts. Petition drives that get the necessary signatures but can't meet that volunteer threshold would be disqualified.

"It's a perversion of our system that a millionaire can hire a bunch of people to get signatures and grossly finance a campaign to pass something,'' he said.

"That's not democratic,'' Kavanagh continued. "I just want us to return to the grass-roots process it was supposed to be.''

Voters who want to craft a law themselves need to get the signatures of 10 percent of those who voted at the last gubernatorial election to qualify for the ballot. For the 2010 election, that was 153,365.

Constitutional amendments require the signatures of 15 percent of the same pool, or 230,047.

Those hurdles have resulted in no measure qualifying for the ballot for at least two decades without the use of some paid circulators. Kavanagh said initiatives are now the tool of "rich outsiders from sometimes out of state'' who can afford such efforts.

But Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said she sees something more sinister in the measure.

"They're trying to keep issues off the ballot that they disagree with,'' she said. Bahr said voters propose their own measures because lawmakers have refused.

Money does matter.

Last year, the Marijuana Policy Project spent close to $800,000 on Proposition 203, most of that to qualify it for the ballot. That measure, narrowly approved in November, allows individuals with a doctor's recommendation to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from state-regulated non-profit dispensaries.

But while money gets measures on the ballot, it doesn't guarantee success.

Two years earlier the payday lending industry hired paid circulators to put a measure on the ballot asking voters to permanently extend their exemption from state usury laws, an exemption that allowed them to charge an effective annual interest rate in excess of 400 percent on short-term loans. While the industry got the signatures -- and ultimately spent more than $14 million -- the proposal was rejected.

She acknowledged, though, the current system allows well-financed organizations to advance their own agendas. She said, though, that's no so different than what happens at the Legislature itself.

"You can't run for many offices without having substantial resources behind you,'' Bahr said. "Some could say you buy your way that way as well.''

Kavanagh said while the raw number of signatures needed is high, the burden remains what it was since the first days of statehood: a percentage of people who turn out to vote.

Bahr, however, said it's a lot harder to get signatures.

"There are a lot of places you can't go,'' she said.

The public gathering places of years ago have been replaced by malls which bar petition circulators, Bahr noted. And she said there are a lot more gated communities, making door-to-door efforts difficult.

Kavanagh said if he wanted to kill the initiative process, his measure would have banned paid circulators entirely.

Even if the Legislature passes the measure, the change itself requires voter ratification as it seeks to amend the Arizona Constitution.

No date has been set for a hearing.

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