The Single Subject Rule: Pros and Cons

Arizona’s Single Subject Rule requires legislative acts only to address one subject. Legislation that tackles multiple issues in a single bill violates the rule and cannot be passed. However, presently, the rule does not apply to lawmaking via the ballot initiative process.

Of the 26 states with a ballot initiative process, 16 of them have some version of a single-subject rule, including Arizona. The state Supreme Court, however, determined that it only applies to legislation adopted by the Legislature.

The Court made this decision during Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry v. Kiley, a case involving a ballot initiative that increased the state’s minimum wage and implemented mandatory sick leave. The Chamber argued that the measure violated the Single Subject Rule, but the Court determined “that the Single Subject Rule applies only to acts by the legislature; it does not apply to initiatives.”

As the Court points out in its final report on the case, “the Single Subject Rule was intended to prevent ‘log-rolling’ by sparing an individual legislator from having to vote for a disfavored proposition to secure enactment of a favored one.”

Some lawmakers believe the opportunity to inject log-rolling into initiatives is dangerous. If citizens favor one part of an initiative but not another, then their vote–or lack thereof–is not an absolute vote, but rather a partial one. Hence, the state ends up passing or voting down legislation that the public only partially supports.

Last session, state Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Scottsdale) proposed a referral to the ballot that would ask voters to apply the single subject rule to statutory initiatives. SCR 1001 would have required initiatives to have only one subject and for the subject to be mentioned in the title of the initiative.

Yet, citizens that want to amend the state constitution must limit their proposed changes to one subject. These proposed constitutional amendments must adhere to the Separate Amendment rule, which limits propositions to containing just one constitutional change. Even so, the Separate Amendment law can be followed very liberally.

“Historical criticism of the Separate Amendment rule is that the court applied it predictably but not because of problems in the law, but what the judge thought was a good or bad law,” Statecraft attorney Kory Langhofer said. “There was a 90-word conservative ballot [initiative] that they struck down and then a 13,000-word ballot [initiative] that they let through a year later.”

Others argue that the Single Subject Rule isn’t crucial for ballot initiatives. In fact, The Torres Firm General Counsel Jim Barton believes that the Single Subject Rule isn’t important for ballot initiatives or legislation.

“I’m not positive that it is an important rule. Because you put a couple things under the same bill number, is that really going to trick a legislative member?” he said. “The information about what a bill does is amply available. We have the rule when it comes to amendments.

Barton believes that the Single Subject Rule only gives the courts more discretionary power to strike down initiatives, something that the state’s founders certainly would not want.

Ben Norman

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