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Arizona legislators have pushed to send more proposed laws to the ballot in recent years

The Arizona Legislature has advanced a slew of ballot measures that would ask voters to enact laws on a range of subjects from elections to immigration.

Historically, that has been a rare move, but lawmakers are following a similar course as the last midterm election. During the 2022 election cycle, the Legislature sent eight measures for voter approval. So far this year, 16 ballot referrals have moved through the Senate or House.

Some Democrats have pushed back on the efforts by the Republican majority. They have argued the GOP members are taking that route to circumvent vetoes from Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs. Last year, Hobbs set a state record on vetoes issued on Republican-backed legislation. She also has made it clear she'll keep hitting legislation she does not like with her veto stamp this year.

The 16 measures that have passed either the Senate or House so far this year stand out because referring many proposed laws directly to the ballot risks voter rejection of all of them. Voters can become confused or frustrated when there are more than a handful of ballot measures up for a vote.

Promoting a ballot measure can also be expensive, and trying to do it multiple times in one election where many office-seekers are competing for financial backing is difficult.

'Weeding out proposals'

Warren Petersen (left) and Ben Toma
Warren Petersen (left) and Ben Toma

Four of the six Senate measures that have passed so far this year are constitutional amendments, while four of the 10 House measures propose changes to the state constitution.

House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria, cautions that despite the number of proposals that have passed one of the chambers, most will ultimately not appear on the ballot.

Toma said he and Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, plan to meet in the next couple of weeks determine which ballot referrals are top priorities for both chambers. He said Friday that they had already traded lists of the ballot referrals passed by their respective chambers.

Letting those proposals move through their originating chamber to see if they have enough support to pass is the initial step in weeding out proposals without enough backing by majority Republicans, Toma said.

"That’s really where the important piece is,'' Toma said, "because there was no reason to have the conversation before each chamber determine(s) what could pass.''

And those that make the cut will need more than just support from majority Republican lawmakers, Toma said.

"I can tell you that it will matter quite a bit for any of these initiatives that there is a organized effort to get them passed,'' the House speaker explained, saying it needs to be "Not just a good idea, arguably by a legislator, but there actually are resources behind something like that,” Toma said. "Because  otherwise, if you send something to the ballot that doesn't have any resources behind it … you're inviting failure.''

Attorney regulation, pronouns bills already failed

Some already have faltered.

Three of the eight referrals that came up for a vote in the Senate failed in the past two weeks. One would have asked the people to amend the Constitution to take attorney regulation away from the state bar and Supreme Court and give it to the Legislature. Another would have changed law to allow police officers to run for political office, while a third would ban teachers or other school employees from calling a student by a pronoun different from the one that aligns with their biological sex.

One House referral also failed. That measure, by Rep. Cory McGarr, R-Marana, would have separated the two seats in each House district into seat A and B.

Republicans argued that most voters don't understand that they have two representatives. Democrats said the measure was designed to sideline a tactic called a "single-shot,'' where one Democrat or Republican runs in a district that tends to vote for the other party's candidate, increasing the chances that they will get more votes than at least one of the opposing party candidates.  

Measures that fail to pass their originating chamber soon are generally considered dead for the year, barring a maneuver to revive them. So by the end of next week, Toma and Petersen will be able to talk.

"Then we’ll have that conversation and decide what actually gets to the ballot,'' Toma said. "And my expectation is that there are maybe a handful that get through and the vast majority will not.''

'They're not willing to negotiate'

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, said it is clear that Republicans are trying to work around divided government rather than trying to enact laws that can win Hobbs' signature.

"The large number of ballot referrals that are actually moving is a sign that they recognize that they have a Democratic governor now,'' she said.

"But it's also a sign that on some of these issues they're not willing to negotiate and have a bipartisan solution,'' Sundareshan said. "These are attempts to ram through a partisan kind of approach and take it straight to the ballot and hoping for a better outcome with voters.''

And Democrats have repeatedly pushed back on the efforts during debate, questioning why majority Republicans seem hell-bent on putting so many measures before voters.

"I don’t think it’s a great look to send to the ballot something that is only going to have votes from one political party,'' Sen. Mitzi Epstein, a Tempe lawmaker who leads Senate Democrats, said during debate on one of the measures. "I am just calling for my fellow legislators to please let's do the work together'' rather than going around Democrats and the governor to put things on the ballot.

The proposals that have passed at least one chamber so far include a ban on any climate change policies by local governments that is being promoted as a ban on Marxism and one that changes the constitution to ban auto taxes based on the number of miles driven.

There are no such taxes in Arizona. But with electric vehicles poised to become a greater share of vehicles on the road, existing gas tax revenue that pays for roads is falling and a mileage tax could be one way to replace that revenue.

Ballot measures before Hobbs

Sen. J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler) said it would be wrong to think that all the measures lawmakers are considering for November's ballot are being proposed just because of Hobbs.

"In 2022, there were 10 measures on the ballot total, eight of them from the Legislature. And that was pre-Hobbs,” Mesnard told Capitol Media Services on Friday.

Several were constitutional amendments that required voter approval and three changed voter-approved laws and thus also needed the OK from voters.

"So there was eight then, and this time around I would expect there to be more because there's going to be constitutional changes which have to go to the voters,'' Mesnard said.

But he did not discount the politics of all this.

"And then there's always the potential of now that Hobbs is governor, if there's some really good idea the Legislature thinks that people will like that the governor would veto, they would send it to the ballot,'' Mesnard said.

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Greg Hahne started as a news intern at KJZZ in 2020 and returned as a field correspondent in 2021. He learned his love for radio by joining Arizona State University's Blaze Radio, where he worked on the production team.