Citizen initiatives file petitions with signatures to spare

Invest in Ed
The campaign for the Invest in Education Act prepares to submit its petitions on July 2, 2020. Photo courtesy Stand for Children Arizona/Twitter.

Four ballot measures submitted their petitions by the deadline Thursday, and the campaigns say they are confident they have enough signatures to fend off any potential legal challenges aimed at keeping them off the ballot.

The campaign to legalize recreational marijuana submitted about 420,000 signatures on Wednesday. On Thursday, a measure that would make a host of changes to hospitals and health care in Arizona filed about 425,000 signatures; a proposal to scale back the state’s strict criminal sentencing standards submitted nearly 400,000; and an initiative that impose an income tax surcharge on higher-earning Arizonans to increase K-12 education funding filed more than 435,000 with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Citizen initiatives that make changes to state statute need 237,645 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot this year. The higher an initiative’s “cushion” — the number of signatures collected above the minimum needed — the lower its chances of being knocked off the ballot through a court challenge.

“I’m confident that all the measures that we’re working on have a margin that will withstand challenge,” said Stacy Pearson of the consulting firm Strategies 360, which is running the campaigns for the marijuana, education and sentencing reform initiatives.

Pearson predicted that validity rates will be higher than normal this year because the COVID-19 pandemic forced petitioners to change the way they collect signatures. While signature gatherers usually focus on areas where lots of people congregate and have high foot traffic, such as public libraries, the coronavirus outbreak forced the campaigns to adopt new methods, such as going to the doors of qualified voters at their request and reaching out to voters through an opt-in text program.

“There are just fewer non-registered voters we intercepted in a parking lot. So, validity is going to be astoundingly high this year,” she said.

Asked if he’s confident that the Stop Surprise Billing and Protect Patients Act has enough signatures to fend off any legal challenges, campaign spokesman Rodd McLeod simply said, “Over 400,000 Arizonans signed because people think this is the right thing to do.”

The Stop Surprise Billing and Protect Patients Act would give patients new protections against unexpected bills from out-of-network providers; mandate a 20% pay raise, phased in over four years, for nurses, technicians, aides, non-managerial administrative staff, social workers and other hospital employees; bar insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions; and mandate new cleanliness and anti-infection protocols in hospitals.

The Smart and Safe Arizona Act would allow adults who are at least 21 years old to buy and possess up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use.

The Invest in Education Act would impose a 3.5% surcharge on incomes of more than $250,000 for individual filers and $500,000 for couples, with the revenue going to fund K-12 schools.

And the Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act would allow people imprisoned for non-dangerous offenses to earn up to 50% off their sentences. Currently, most inmates in Arizona must serve at least 85% of their sentences due to the state’s strict “truth in sentencing” law, though people convicted only of drug offense can earn their release after serving 70% of their sentences. 

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which opposes the income tax, health care and marijuana initiatives, will examine the signatures to determine whether a legal challenge is feasible, said spokesman Garrick Taylor.

“When it comes to the financial resources … we’ll look at a number of things, at signatures from both a quantity and quality standpoint,” Taylor said.

Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, a committee formed to oppose the marijuana initiative, is “looking at all available options” with regards to the signatures filed by the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, said chairwoman Lisa James.

There are other reasons why an initiative can be kicked off the ballot. The Arizona Supreme Court kept the Invest in Education Act’s 2018 predecessor off the ballot after finding that the brief description the campaign put on its petitions did not adequately describe the proposed measure.

If the four initiatives qualify for the ballot, some of them, though perhaps not all, can expect well-funded opposition campaigns. 

The Chamber of Commerce has already formed opposition committees to fight the income tax and health care measures. Though it opposes recreational marijuana legalization and led the charge against a similar measure in 2016, it has not done the same for the Smart and Safe Arizona Act.

If the Chamber of Commerce accepts the passage of one ballot measure it dislikes as a fait accompli so it can focus on defeating another, it wouldn’t be the first time. Except the last time that happened, it focused all of its energy on stopping legalized marijuana.

In 2016, the Chamber dedicated its resources to defeating an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana. At the same time, it allowed another measure to increase the minimum wage in Arizona, which it opposed, to pass into law. Voters overwhelmingly approved the minimum wage initiative while narrowly rejecting legal pot.

Taylor wouldn’t say if the Chamber will adopt a similar strategy with the three initiatives this year, assuming they all qualify for the ballot. But he indicated its strategy may again be shaped in part by how much popular support exists for the proposals.

“The potential for crowded ballots and difficult issues make for tough decisions. So, we will know more after the validation process determines which measures will actually appear on the November ballot,” he said. “We’ll be assessing the electoral landscape once we know exactly what’s going to be on the ballot.”

Pearson said there’s no opposition campaign for the Second Chances initiative. And though Smart and Safe has opposition, she doesn’t expect it to be well funded. Between the high signature count and the measure’s support in recent polls, “opposing marijuana would not be money well spent,” she said.

James said her committee will have money to fight against marijuana legalization.

“While we might not have special interest companies who will benefit from the initiative paying for our side, we do expect to be sufficiently funded to run a strong campaign,” she said, referring to the medical marijuana companies that are bankrolling the legalization campaign.

Jeremy Duda
Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”