Arizona Capitol

Republican Arizona Legislators to Voters: You Suck

(See update below with comments from the resolution's sponsor.)

Republican Arizona legislators want to send voters a strong message this year: You don't know what you're doing! You need to leave it to us.

Which is why an anti-voter resolution cleared a key Arizona Senate committee this week, bringing the state a step closer to destroying democracy here as the public knows it.

House Concurrent Resolution 2043 aims to allow the Legislature — by obtaining slightly more than a simple majority — "to amend, supersede, or divert funds from a voter-approved ballot initiative or referendum measure."

This means, for instance, that, if the bill becomes law, the state's potential marijuana-legalization law expected to be on the ballot in November would be imperiled — because God-fearing, right-wing legislators don't approve of it. 

The resolution has already cleared the House. The Senate Committee on Federalism, Mandates, and Fiscal Responsibility passed the resolution on a 4-3 vote this week.  It now goes to the Senate Rules committee before the full Senate can vote on it.

Voters still would need to approve the power-killing resolution at the polls this November. While it seems unlikely they would do that, GOP lawmakers remain gung-ho for the bill. When the resolution passed the House on March 3, Representative Kate Brophy McGee (R-Phoenix) was the only Republican to vote against it. No Democrats voted for it.

Indeed, Republican lawmakers can't wait to get their hands on your favorite proposition-based laws — they're excited to alter or even dismantle voters' wishes as they did before voters approved the 1998 Voter Protection Act.

Back then, the VPA had strong bipartisan support from various state leaders, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

While lawmakers had tinkered with voter-approved initiatives in the past,  many were outraged when the Legislature voted to dismantle a drug-reform and medical-marijuana law overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1996.

Since passage of the VPA, changes to successful initiatives require a three-quarters majority vote in the Legislature, and even then, the change must "further the purpose" of voter-approved laws.

Under HCR 2043, the Legislature could make changes to voter-approved laws with the same percentage of votes by lawmakers as the initiative received by the public.

The 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, which passed by a razor-thin 50.1 percent of the vote, wouldn't stand a prayer in the Legislature under these terms.

State Representative Ken Clark (D-Phoenix) noted in a floor hearing earlier this month how many laws suddenly would become threatened if voters ultimately approve the resolution.

The state's Indian compacts were approved in 2002 by 50.8 percent of voters, meaning the Legislature would need only a simple majority to change or overturn them, Clark said. The Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2006, which requires governments to reimburse property owners fairly when they do something that devastates property values, could be overturned with a mere 38 votes in the House and 19 in the Senate, he said.

 [Correction: Clark wasn't right about that, or maybe he was talking hypothetically. If voters approve HCR 2043, we found out later, it will apply only to laws voters approve starting in 2016 or approved prior to 1998.]

"Think of the instability to the business community," Clark warned. "That's a very low standard ... I am very concerned about the message [HCR 2043] sends to the public [about how the Legislature feels about voters]."

The resolution is the only one to survive of four similar measures floated this legislative session. It will appear on the ballot only if it passes the Legislature and is signed by Governor Doug Ducey. At this point, nobody's betting against this happening.

UPDATE: Representative Javan "J.D." Mesnard, the sponsor of the resolution, called New Times back this afternoon after this article was published — he was in committee this morning.

Mesnard's a former policy adviser for the State Senate and basically a full-time lawmaker who works as an adjunct professor teaching political science at Mesa Community College.

He disagrees that the resolution could be called an attack on voters, because voters would have to approve the VPA repeal.

"This is about efficient lawmaking," he says, explaining that the VPA is increasingly binding the hands of lawmakers to make positive changes to initiatives, and that things will only be worse in the future because of it.

Arizona is the only state that gives such protections to voter-approved initiatives, and the VPA itself only had 52 percent of the vote, he laments. He doesn't consider initiatives that get such narrow approval to be "mandates." But voters could still enable VPA protections under his plan by approving an initiative with a two-thirds majority vote, Mesnard points out.

He calls the proposed changes "logical." But he admits the reality that politics would guide the actions of lawmakers who want to change voter-approved laws. 

Mesnard says the VPA came about because of the "isolated situation" involving the 1996 drug law. The way he understands it, lawmakers in 1996 thought they were protecting Arizona by gutting the drug law. He says the lawmakers believed the state was facing "dire consequences" if they let the law go through as passed, and that it might jeopardize billions of dollars in federal funding.

But he's wrong about that. In 1998, voters re-approved the measures the lawmakers took out and the state suffered no "dire consequences."

News archives reveal that the 1996 law, approved 2 to 1 by Arizona voters, was disliked by Arizona's Republican leaders and by the administration of President Bill Clinton, which wanted to sanction doctors who prescribed medical marijuana.