Saying Arizona needs some "structural changes," retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has pulled together business, academic, civic, labor and other interests to push to revamp some of the ways state government functions.
"We love this state and we see a need for a few changes," O'Connor said Thursday following a meeting of group members. "And we hope that we can help see that that happens."
Among the changes group members want to see made are:
- Creating the post of a lieutenant governor who would run on the same ticket as gubernatorial hopefuls.
- Dividing each of the 30 legislative districts, with one House member from each half, to reduce the number of people each one represents.
- Allowing the governor, with Senate confirmation, to appoint several state officials who are now elected, including the state schools superintendent, treasurer and mine inspector.
- Limiting public funding of candidates for statewide and legislative offices.
O'Connor acknowledged that each of these changes already could be proposed by the Legislature and sent to voters for their required approval. But she rejected the idea that these 101 people, herself included, are trying to replace the 90 elected state legislators in setting policy.
"We're citizens of the state of Arizona," O'Connor said. "And, as citizens, we care about our state, care about its structure, what happens and what we should do."
She also pointed to the state's upcoming centennial in 2012.
"It is our hope that, as we celebrate that birthday, we will have been able to encourage some structural changes that will help make Arizona an even better place for its second century," she said.
Ultimately, O'Connor said, none of the recommendations can take effect without legislative action and, in many cases, voter ratification.
The group is dubbed the "O'Connor House Project," named for a nonprofit organization O'Connor founded to deal with public policy issues and other priorities, like domestic violence. It also marks a return to public policy for O'Connor who, before being named in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan as the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, had been a state senator and a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals.
Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, the No. 3 Democrat in the state House, said he sees nothing improper about the formation of this kind of group to try to get lawmakers to act. In fact, he said, it actually might prove helpful in revisiting a government structure that, in many cases, has not been changed since Arizona became a state.
Ideally, he said, lawmakers would be dealing with these issues, especially when voters and other groups come to the Capitol to suggest that perhaps things are not working as planned.
"But I also think ... that sometimes we don't have community involvement to the degree we would like in the Legislature," Campbell said, what with limited time devoted to hearing testimony on issues. More to the point, he said having an outside group with a diverse makeup might be just what is needed to push through certain changes.
"Certain issues down at the Capitol get caught up in political views and get clouded by the political realities," said Campbell, who also is a member of the O'Connor House Project. "I think, in some ways, it's better to start outside the political process with ideas like this."
Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, also a member of the project, said that, other than the involvement of a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, he sees nothing unusual in the activities of this kind of group.
"I guess they, like a number of other people in the world, have concerns about how the system works," he said.
O'Connor said the experience of the current Legislature shows why some outside group needs to study broad public policy issues.
"This year consisted primarily of bringing about the budget," she said. "And there wasn't an opportunity to consider an array of substantive issues that have nothing to do with budget."
While some of the changes deal with 100-year-old issues, a few actually have been addressed more recently. For example, voters specifically rejected creating the office of lieutenant governor in 1994.
O'Connor defended pushing the issue back onto the ballot.
"Most voters don't realize that the secretary of state is the one that comes into office if the governor can no longer serve in that capacity or is no longer serving in that capacity," she said.
O'Connor said that 1994 rejection "doesn't mean it can't go on (the ballot) again."
"And it doesn't mean we can't have a more meaningful discussion," she continued, suggesting perhaps that a lack of press coverage of the underlying issue led to its defeat.
"If you show an interest and if you show the discussion and the arguments both ways round, I think we might have a more informed electorate," she told reporters.
O'Connor said the committee also is discussing revamping the 1998 Voter Protection Act. That constitutional amendment, approved by voters, precludes lawmakers from repealing or substantially altering any measure that has been adopted at the ballot.
"Conceivably, there might be a period of time of let's say 10 years in which you can't tinker with it at all," she said of the ideas being weighed, with lawmakers then free to alter the law or rescind it outright after that.
Any changes to the public financing of political candidates would alter what voters themselves enacted in 1998.
O'Connor said there also is sentiment toward banning the payment of those who circulate petitions to put issues on the ballot based on the number of names they gather. "You're creating an incentive for phony signatures," she said.
Other issues being weighed by the committee include:
Imposing new restrictions on initiatives, including forbidding backers from choosing their own potentially misleading names, and requiring a legal review of the proposed changes.
Repealing or altering term limits for lawmakers and statewide office holders.
Altering the redistricting process to try to create more politically "competitive" districts.