Arizona’s GOP Lawmakers weaken the people’s powers

[Source: Linda Valdez, azcentral Opinions] –The Sierra Club’s Sandy Bahr told the Senate Appropriations Committee today that “the only way” Arizona will get meaningful environmental protections in the future is through the initiative process. She should know. She’s been up at the Legislature for years trying to get the conservatives who run the place to be nice to Mother Nature.

When Bahr took the podium to speak in opposition to a package of election law changes, committee chair Sen. Don Shooter, said: “Sierra Club? Are you worried we are going to chop up too many trees for ballots?”


The package of election bills – which has been contentious throughout the session – was tacked on to a Senate budget that emerged only this week. Democrats on the committee objected to the quickie budget in general — Sen. Anna Tovar said it would have been better to write a state budget in a “transparent, open process.” They also opposed the election changes.

Bahr’s call for transparency was aimed directly at the election changes. She said proposed changes in the initiative process do more than just move deadlines, they allow signatures to be thrown out on technicalities, such as whether the pages are submitted in the right order. They will create barriers.

The state Constitution gave voters the initiative/referendum process as a powerful tool and a check on Legislative power, Bahr said. Voters used the process to ban cockfighting, outlaw leg-hold traps, require humane farm animal practices, as well as to expand health care for the working poor, better fund education and create the Heritage Fund – which lawmakers gutted in a nasty slap at both voters and Mother Nature.

The Legislature should not put itself in charge of changing a system that was designed to give citizens the power to go around the Legislature. Any changes should come from a public discussion involving the interest groups that use, understand and value the initiative process. Not lawmakers who see it as a pain in the neck.

Bahr made valid points about the importance of preserving a process voters depend on to get around dunderheads in the Legislature. The dunderheads were unmoved.

All six Republicans on the committee voted for the election changes. All three Democrats voted no.

Initiative to fund Arizona state parks fails to make ballot

[Source: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services] –Arizonans are not going to get a chance to vote on whether they want to fund state parks with a surcharge on vehicle registration fees. Bill Meek, president of the Arizona Parks Foundation, said Tuesday the initiative campaign ran out of money about two weeks ago to hire paid circulators. “We had a really good army of volunteers,” he said. But Meek said that was insufficient to gather the 172,809 valid signatures needed by Thursday to put the question on the ballot.

Meek said, though, that is not the end of the issue. He said supporters of the plan will ask lawmakers next year to refer the issue to voters in 2014, bypassing the need to circulate petitions. The question of funding remains significant because lawmakers, looking for ways to balance the state budget in prior years, have refused to provide tax dollars to support the parks system. Complicating matters, legislators even took some of the money that had been raised from admission and other fees.

A 2009 task force report to Gov. Jan Brewer concluded that the parks system “is threatened with extinction and cannot survive under a roller-coaster system of financial support.”

The initiative had two key provisions.

One would have imposed a $14 surcharge added to the cost of each vehicle registration fee. That fee would be voluntary — but motorists would have to affirmatively opt out by checking a box on the renewal form to avoid paying it. Meek said states with similar systems manage to get anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of drivers agreeing to the additional fee. While Meek had no specific figures of what the fee might raise, that 2009 report estimated that even if half of motorists opt out, that could still raise $40 million a year.

The second half would make anything the parks system raised, whether from the vehicle license surcharge or admission fees, off limits to legislative raiding. Meek said he had hoped to line up sufficient major donors to get the signatures.

The idea of the registration fee is not new. In fact, it was part of the recommendations in that 2009 report to Brewer. Meek conceded there is probably no way lawmakers themselves would ever approve the plan — even with the opt-out provision — as many have taken a “no tax hike” pledge. Meek disputed, though, that it is a tax. But he said they might be willing to give voters a chance to weigh in by simply voting to put the issue on the ballot.

That logic worked in 2010 when lawmakers agreed to let voters decide whether to impose a temporary one-cent hike in the state sales tax. Several legislators who supported referring the issue to the ballot later said they voted against it in the special election that year. Meek, however, has an uphill fight, even to get that Referral.

A version of the vehicle license surcharge gained the support the following year by the House Committee on Natural Resources and Rural Affairs in 2010. But the full House refused to go along — or even send the question to the ballot.