State lawmakers are making another bid to shorten the time that individuals and groups have to put issues on the ballot.
On a 5-2 margin Tuesday the Senate Committee on Elections approved a measure which would require petitions for initiatives to be filed by May 1 of election year. The current constitutional provision gives them until four months before the election, a date that normally falls in early July.
The move came after Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, the sponsor of the proposal, refused to consider amendments that would trade off the earlier deadline for a decrease in the number of signatures required. Reagan said that question should be dealt with separately.
But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said taking two months away from initiative efforts and keeping the signature requirements the same is unfair.
SCR 1006 now goes to the full Senate.
The final decision, however, does not rest with lawmakers since the filing date is part of the Arizona Constitution which can be altered only with voter approval. And voters narrowly rejected a virtually identical measure in 2010.
Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said the current deadlines are causing problems.
Her office had to hold up printing of two ballot measures this past fall -- one on open primaries and the other on a sales tax hike -- while judges weighed various legal challenges to everything from the validity of the signatures to the constitutionality of the wording.
"We go from the courtroom to the printer,'' she said, sometimes with just hours to go before the presses are set to run. "This gives us enough time ... so that we would have those decisions made in time to get proper language to the ballot and not rush to justice all the time.''
Part of the problem is that some of these legal challenges cannot be filed until the counties have finished checking their random sample of petitions and the Secretary of State's Office determines if there are sufficient valid signatures.
That can take time.
For the 2014 election, those seeking changes in state law have to file 172,809 valid signatures, a figure based on 10 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election. Constitutional amendments have a higher hurdle of 15 percent of that total, or 259,213.
And given that sometimes a quarter or more signatures are found invalid, circulators usually turn in tens of thousands more that need to be checked.
"Everything gets crunched at the end and everyone ends up in court,'' Reagan said.
"And you end up with ballot decisions being made (by judges) with two hours to go,'' she said. "That's not, I don't think what the people want, their election decisions being put in the hands some attorneys and a judge and quick decision.''
And Reagan said she's not trying to throw new roadblocks in the path of those trying to get issues on the ballot.
Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club said that may not be the intent. But she said the measure, as crafted, would have that effect.
She acknowledged that virtually all petition drives now use paid circulators, given the number of signatures required. But she said they also rely on volunteers who need that extra time in May and June.
"Two months really limits your ability to get on the ballot,'' Bahr said.
"It's already very difficult,'' she continued. "It's a lot of signatures, it's effectively a lot of money.''
Gallardo said if lawmakers are going to take time away from circulators they also should lower the bar.
He wants to lower the signature requirement for statutory changes to 8 percent of the turnout, a figure that would translate to about 138,200. And Gallardo said constitutional measures should be allowed with the signatures of 13 percent of the last turnout, or about 225,000.
Bahr said the initiative process is "a check on the Arizona Legislature,'' especially when lawmakers will not go along with proposals that a majority of voters might want.
As proof she cited the 1990 ballot measure appropriating $20 million a year to create the Heritage Fund, with its proceeds earmarked to finance operation of state parks as well as help preserve non-game animals. She said only after lawmakers repeatedly rejected the funding request did her organization and others go directly to voters.