Senate Republicans OK bill on initiative signatures

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Bill has been proposed to restrict collecting voter signatures. (Source: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo) Bill has been proposed to restrict collecting voter signatures. (Source: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo)

Republicans in the Arizona Senate on Wednesday rejected concerns from Democrats and gave initial approval to legislation that would ban paying petition circulators for each signature they gather to qualify a voter initiative for the ballot.

Democrats and voting rights activists say the proposal that already has passed the House is designed to make it harder to get citizen initiatives on the ballot. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce backs the measure, which it pushed after voters in November approved a minimum wage increase opposed by business groups.

[READ MORE: House gives initial OK to bills targeting voter initiatives]

Republicans turned away several proposed changes to House Bill 2404 that Democrats say would make it more fair. One would have extended the per-signature payment ban to candidates for office, including the governor and House and Senate members.

Republicans say the measure is needed to cut fraud in signature gathering, but provided no evidence of actual fraud during Senate committee hearings. In addition to banning per-signature payment, it makes it easier to challenge initiatives in court.

The measure is one of the most contentious of the Legislative session, and appears poised to become law. It is short a final Senate vote, House approval of minor Senate changes and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey's signature.

[RELATED: AZ voters rally at state Capitol to protect voter initiative process]

The Chamber made it one of its top priorities this year, and the Republican-controlled Legislature has embraced the idea.

The Senate debated the measure for nearly an hour Wednesday with repeated rejections of Democratic amendments.

"The people are the ultimate legislative body, despite what we may think around here from time to time," implored Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson "And we should not be messing with this sacred right here in Arizona and our state Constitution that our founders wisely left for us."

But Democrats faced a united front of Republican members, who have repeatedly said the initiative process has been hijacked by out-of-state interests.

"The Arizona founders gave the people of Arizona the gift of the initiative," said Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. "We should not let it be perverted by outside influences."

Most circulators are now paid by the signature, rather than hourly, as a productivity incentive. Lawmakers did not include themselves in the ban on paying per signature when they hire circulators to collect qualifying signatures.

The proposal is one of four making their way through the Legislature in response to the minimum wage increase measure known as Proposition 206, a failed marijuana initiative and other voter-approved measures that rankle Republican lawmakers.

The three others would require voter approval and have not yet advanced in the Senate.

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