By Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services
Democrat lawmakers last week accused their Republican colleagues of hiding relevant information from voters about upcoming ballot measures.
The Democrats complained that key provisions in two measures on the November ballot are not included in the explanations to be provided to voters in official ballot pamphlets. And those provisions, they said, are needed to give voters full information to help them decide whether to approve either proposal.
One would expand the current voucher program, making virtually all of the 1.1 million students in public schools eligible to use public funds to attend private or parochial schools. The other seeks to put some new restrictions on the ability of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission to enact campaign finance rules.
The latter almost immediately provoked a lawsuit by the commission that included Republican legislators suing their colleagues.
Members of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission voted Friday to sue the Legislative Council over what commissioners claim is an effort to mislead voters about an upcoming ballot measure.
Tom Collins, the commission’s executive director, said the council, made up of 10 Republicans and four Democrats, failed to include relevant information when it approved a description of changes the Republican-controlled Legislature wants voters to approve in how the commission operates. And some of what the council did put in the description, he said, is flat wrong.
Collins said that means voters, who have to ratify the changes approved by lawmakers, are being given an inaccurate picture of what the measure would do.
The lawsuit authorized unanimously by the bipartisan commission most immediately will seek to block the Secretary of State’s Office from using the description – adopted less than 24 hours earlier on a party-line vote by the Legislative Council – in the ballot pamphlet mailed out ahead of the November election to all households with registered voters.
It would then be up to a court to determine if lawmakers complied with state law, which requires an “impartial analysis’’ of all ballot measures. If the judge agrees with challengers, he or she then could order council members to reconvene and recraft the language.
At the heart of the fight is the decision by voters in 1998 to set up a voluntary system of public financing of statewide and legislative elections. Under the Citizens Clean Elections Act, candidates who agree not to take private dollars are provided with funds generated from things like a surcharge on criminal, civil and traffic fines.
That 1998 ballot measure also established the commission to not only oversee the financing but also empowered it to educate voters as well as to enforce campaign finance laws.
Republicans in the Legislature have voted to repeal many laws requiring that outside groups that seek to influence elections disclose both their spending as well as the individuals financing those efforts. But the commission, having been created through that voter-approved constitutional amendment, is exempt from – and beyond the reach – of legislative action. And that leaves their campaign finance rules intact.
This ballot measure, Proposition 306, attacks that by seeking to eliminate the ability of the commission to enact its own rules. Instead, changes would have to be approved by the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council.
But in debating the language Thursday, Rep. Ken Clark, D-Tucson, said the description does not mention the repeal of existing authority but is makes it sound like voters are being asked to give new rule-making powers to the commission.
Potentially more significant, Clark noted it does not tell voters that the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council is not some nonpartisan body but in fact is made up of six people hand-picked by Gov. Doug Ducey and a member of his Department of Administration.
The Republican-controlled Legislative Council, tasked with coming up with the explanations, rejected most of the changes suggested by the Democrats on the voucher-related language.
Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said if voters want to know more about either measure they should, review the history of how each of the GOP-backed proposals were approved, including reviewing the various versions of the bills as they went through the process.
That suggestion did not sit well with Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, who said Republicans were not complying with the law.
He said there’s a mandate for the Legislative Council to provide voters a clear and impartial explanation and to avoid overly technical terms. And Quezada said the panel also is supposed to include background information that would be relevant to voters.
“Our goal here should be to provide the most clear and fair explanation to the people of Arizona without any political or partisan spin, one way or the other,’’ he said.
But what voters will see, Quezada said, misses some key points, particularly on the voucher measure.
One element of the measure would provide additional voucher dollars for students from “low-income’’ families. But the explanation voters will see does not explain that lawmakers defined that to include everyone up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, a figure that is $62,750 for a family of four, $84,350 for a family of six and nearly $106,000 for a family of eight.
There’s also no mention that the law Republicans want voters to approve allows for voucher “brokers,’’ third parties who could help families find money in exchange for keeping a percentage of whatever state dollars they get.
And Quezada said what’s also missing is the fact that the explanation voters will see speaks not of “vouchers’’ but instead “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts,’’ the legal term for the system that provides money to parents to use for private and parochial schools.
Leach said that’s because pure vouchers, which would give state dollars directly to private and parochial schools, were declared unconstitutional in Arizona.
GOP lawmakers responded by approving what they dubbed the ESAs, giving what amounts to a voucher to the parents who can use it to pay for the private school tuition.
That the Arizona Supreme Court concluded, is legal. And that is the term used for the funding.
Quezada conceded the legal point. But he said that ignores the fact that most voters have no idea what an “empowerment scholarship’’ is.
His proposal would have kept all the reference to the ESA in the explanation, but with a sentence saying these are “commonly referred to as school vouchers.’’
“If you talk to anybody out in the general public, this is what they actually refer to these as,’’ Quezada said.
In fact, Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, actually used the “vouchers’’ himself during the discussion.