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Hands off our initiative process

Citizen Staff Writer

Billie Stanton

Opinion Editor

Gov. Jan Brewer and state Sen. Russell Pearce have whacked open a hornet’s nest and don’t even know it yet.

Their proposal to run roughshod over Arizona’s citizen initiative process will spur protest from free-market Republicans and progressive Democrats alike.

As the conservative Goldwater Institute noted in 2008, “Arizona’s Constitutional framers intended the initiative process to be used as a check on government . . . ”

When legislators fail to accomplish something that citizens deem necessary – a common occurrence in Arizona – we turn to the initiative process, as we have since statehood in 1912.

Indeed, Arizona gave women the right to vote through the initiative process that year, long before the Aug. 26, 1920, ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This vibrant process has been serving Arizonans ever since, resulting in an incredible array of successful initiatives.

Voters have approved proposals that do everything from banning gay marriage to ensuring that pregnant sows and veal calves can turn around and stretch in their cages.

Now Brewer and Pearce, a Mesa Republican, want to strip Arizona voters of this constitutional power.

In Senate Concurrent Resolution 1009, Pearce proposes to amend our constitution in a most heinous way.

When voters enact an initiative that raises tax dollars, the Legislature could sweep those funds away for its own uses whenever there’s a state deficit of 1 percent or more.

Further, the state couldn’t even propose a tax increase until all initiatives’ funds have been stripped bare.

So citizens’ ideas and programs would be eradicated whenever lawmakers face a little budget shortfall.

Brewer wants Pearce’s proposal to be placed on a special election ballot this spring.

But before these state officials move to demolish the power vested in us citizens, surely wiser Arizonans will prevail.

“Our (Arizona) Constitution gave powers to the people even before it gave powers to the Legislature,” notes Nadine Mathis Basha, board chairwoman for First Things First, an early childhood development program created by voter initiative in 2006.

“The founders of our constitution felt very strongly about having citizens empowered,” Basha adds. “It is absolutely wrong to still the voices of voters in this state.”

But that’s what Brewer and Pearce would do, as they’re lusting after more than $300 million in tobacco tax revenues collected for First Things First,

The money is still in the bank because First Things First has undertaken the time-consuming, tedious work of doing exactly what it promised voters:

• Citizens were nominated by their communities to serve as volunteers on 31 regional councils, 10 of them representing tribal nations.

• The councils have assessed the specific needs of young children in their geographic areas. Such needs vary depending on whether an area is rural, urban, tribal, economically sound or weak, served by nonprofits or not, and many other factors.

• Once needs were determined, the councils tapped their communities to determine the priorities and preferred ways to meet the youngsters’ needs.

• Meanwhile, less than 10 percent of the tobacco tax money has been spent to establish the program’s infrastructure and administration, and every penny is accounted for.

Now, at last, First Things First is prepared to begin awarding the long-awaited grants to councils to help young children in their communities.

This program is the purest of grass-roots efforts. Citizens came up with this initiative, citizens passed it and citizens are carrying it out in their communities under the direction of their neighbors.

Should lawmakers “sweep” the program’s funds, Arizonans will never know where the money went.

And for the initiative process, it would be the beginning of the end.

When an initiative is passed to improve transportation in Arizona, lawmakers facing a deficit will take its money, too.

Any initiatives – for health care, teachers’ raises, whatever cause – will see their cupboards stripped bare by greedy lawmakers.

And then the initiative process would end. Why bother, if nothing the voters want ever comes to fruition?

But Arizonans won’t let that happen. We won’t tolerate state officials who work to destroy our constitution rather than to protect it.

Like hornets streaming from the hive, citizens will swarm the Statehouse to ensure that our rights and powers are preserved.

Our Arizona Constitution will be upheld – even if we have to see to it ourselves.

Reach Billie Stanton at bstanton@tucsoncitizen.com and 573-4664.

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