Why does Arizona attract out-of-state ballot initiative interests?

The state’s ballot initiative process, intended to give more power to Arizona citizens, has also indirectly given significant power to out-of-state political interest groups. The voter-protected nature of Arizona’s initiatives has made the state an attractive investment opportunity for many political agendas.

Arizona’s ballot initiative process allows a state resident to prepare a petition for a proposed change to state law or a constitutional amendment. If the citizen collects the required number of valid signatures, the petition will then be reviewed and approved by the Secretary of State.

This is a useful political tool by itself, but it was made even more useful when the Voter Protection Act was passed in 1998. The VPA is an amendment to the state constitution that prohibits legislators from altering, redeveloping or repealing ballot initiatives. The only way the state Legislature can make changes to a voter-approved initiative is if it “furthers the purpose” of the initial measure; after that, the amendment must receive a three-fourths vote in the Arizona House of Representatives and Senate, a nearly impossible threshold.

Because of the Voter Protection Act, Arizona ballot initiatives are essentially untouchable, which makes them the perfect tool for any political interest group. An interest group can find a representative for the initiative so that it seems like it’s being driven locally, when behind the curtains, that is not the case.

Snell & Wilmer Law managing partner Brett Johnson explains that the VPA is almost single-handedly the cause of the attraction of out-of-state interest groups.

“The reason for out-of-state interests is, quite simply, the Voter Protection Act. It’s an 800-pound gorilla that they do not face in other states,” Johnson said. “For example, in Colorado, the legislature has the ability to tweak the law. So, there’s less intensity to go into those types of states where you go and drop a bunch of money just to have it changed within the next few years.”

Recent examples of ballot initiatives spearheaded by out-of-state interest groups include 2016’s Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative and 2018’s Renewable Energy Standards Initiative.

The Renewable Energy Standards Initiative campaign was led by NextGen Climate Action, a California-based nonprofit organization that advocates on environmental issues; the organization was created by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

Similarly, the Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative campaign, which would have legalized the use of marijuana in the state, was led by Marijuana Policy Project. MPP is a Washington DC-based organization that works on marijuana policy reform. In 2016, nine states had a similar initiative on the ballot; Arizona was the only one that did not pass it.

Government relations consultant Mario Diaz believes that out-of-state interest groups’ gravitation towards Arizona exemplifies its position as a policy incubator.

“I think Arizona is a breeding ground for initiatives,” Diaz said. “And because of the relatively low number of signatures needed, I think that’s why out-of-state groups have used Arizona as an incubator for their political agendas. It’s more cost-effective to come to Arizona to try and test the waters through an initiative before taking it nationwide.”

Johnson notes that initiatives can certainly help voter turnout by attracting citizens who are passionate about a certain cause. But for the most part, he says, initiatives driven by out-of-state parties are detrimental to state politics.

“The main negative about this is that they have no appreciation for Arizona and existing Arizona law and the unintended consequences of what they might do.”

Lastly, Johnson notes the importance of Arizona citizens coming together to vote on policy matters and maintain control of the future of the state. “Going back to our founders and what they really wanted — they really wanted our citizens to be the final say in public policy in Arizona,” he said.

Ben Norman

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