Prop. 105: Tax relief or end of initiatives?

The Arizona Republic
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Matthew Benson

Proposition 105 is just one sentence. Seventy-one words about Arizona's ballot-initiative process.

But uncertainty abounds within the relatively few words of the seemingly simple initiative. Would it effectively kill all citizens initiatives or just make it more difficult to pass a few dealing with tax increases?

Prop. 105's hazy implications have sparked a war of words between those who see it as a common-sense way to limit tax increases and critics who say it represents no less than an assault on Arizona's initiative process and tradition of direct democracy. The claims and counter-claims flying on both sides could hardly be more charged leading up to the Nov. 4 general election.

Essentially, Prop. 105 would amend the Arizona Constitution by specifying that a simple majority vote at the polls would no longer be sufficient for any future citizens initiative to raise taxes and fees or mandate government or other spending. Such measures would require approval by a majority of all registered voters, including those not participating in the election at all.

Arizona Education Association President John Wright said Prop. 105 "initiates an attack on the very act of voting."

Leading Prop. 105 backer Jason LeVecke said opponents' real fear is the loss of a ballot process often used to skirt a tax-averse Arizona Legislature. Without initiative reform, he warned, it's only a matter of time before special interests come to voters with a proposal to increase taxes.

"We will be bankrupt if we continue to tax and spend," said LeVecke, who owns a series of Carl's Jr. and Pizza Patron fast-food franchises. "This is a dangerous scenario for the future of Arizona."

Majority rules

Also known as the Majority Rule - Let the People Decide Act, Prop. 105 would redefine what constitutes victory at the polls. That much is clear.

If approved by voters, the measure would require that any future initiative that "raises a tax, fee or other revenue, or mandates a spending obligation" receive for passage the approval of not just a majority of ballots cast but a majority of all registered voters. Non-voters essentially would be counted as "no" votes under this scenario, significantly raising the bar for victory.

Roughly one in three registered voters sits out Election Day in Arizona. Since 1978, voter turnout has exceeded 70 percent five times and reached 80 percent just once.

Even in a year with exceptional voter turnout, say 75 percent, an initiative affected by Prop. 105 would have to claim support from 68 percent of the ballots cast to be approved. If turnout were lower, which is more typical, the percentage of votes needed for approval could climb to 80 or higher.

For evidence, look no further than 2006. That year, Arizona voters agreed to hike the state's tobacco tax and devote the revenue to early-childhood health and other programs.

The measure, Prop. 203, passed with a margin of victory of nearly 6.5 percentage points, a cushion of more than 95,000 votes cast statewide. But it would have come up nearly 500,000 votes short had it been proposed under the stricter rules envisioned by Prop. 105.

"The initiative process is dead if this goes through," said John Spears, a Mesa Republican and retiree who told The Arizona Republic he sees initiatives as "a very strong check and balance against our Legislature - Republicans and Democrats."

But LeVecke is mindful of the impact that even an innocuous-sounding citizens initiative can have on private business. He argues that tax increases should have to pass a higher threshold at the polls - similar to the supermajority, two-thirds vote they must receive for passage at the Arizona Legislature.

"We must right this course and be certain these special interests don't hijack our state," LeVecke said.

Mystery surrounds much of the rest of Prop. 105.

'Ambiguous' language

Opponents wonder whether the measure would apply not only to statewide initiatives but also to local citizen-led initiatives.

The No on Prop. 105 Committee, led by Wright, of the Arizona Education Association, has been stoking those fears, while LeVecke and his representatives insist they have no interest in regulating local initiatives.

The nonpartisan Arizona Legislative Council, a research wing of the Legislature, has issued a preliminary opinion that Prop. 105 applies only to statewide initiatives, though Executive Director Mike Braun concedes that its ballot language "is ambiguous."

A second major dispute centers on how broadly Prop. 105 would be interpreted. Supporters say it would do just what it says: hold to a higher standard of voter approval any initiative that would raise taxes or fees or mandate state spending. Ballot measures that require state funding for a specified program are blamed by critics for tying legislators' hands even as the state faces growing budget shortfalls.

Over the past decade, Arizona voters have approved a handful of initiatives increasing taxes or mandating spending, including three measures in 2006. Kevin McCarthy sees Prop. 105 as a means to help slow that tide.

"Our Constitution never contemplated this level of citizen initiatives with regard to public finance," said McCarthy, executive director of the Arizona Tax Research Association, which has endorsed Prop. 105. "Does it mean (Prop. 105) would stop all initiatives? I can't fathom it would do that."

Opponents aren't so sure.

They note that nearly every initiative has a state cost associated with its implementation, especially those that require resources for enforcement. Would Prop. 105 apply to an initiative toughening regulations against illegal immigration? Or banning the use of cellular phones behind the wheel?

While Prop. 105 supporters call the issue little more than a red herring employed by opponents to scare voters, the question remains in dispute. Braun said the Legislative Council hasn't researched it and likely won't unless Prop. 105 is approved in November.

Most likely, he said, the full extent of the initiative won't be known until there are lawsuits that throw the issue into the courts.

Said Braun: "Really, it'll come down to what five live (Arizona) Supreme Court justices decide." And that won't come until after the election.