State lawmakers want Arizona voters to give them permission to raid funds now earmarked for special purposes to instead balance the state budget.
On a 6-2 vote Friday, the House Government Committee approved SCR1009, which - if approved by voters next year - would override existing constitutional prohibitions against lawmakers altering any measure originally enacted at the ballot. The measure, which now goes to the full House, already has been approved by the Senate.
Voters enacted the restriction on lawmakers in 1998. That followed an attempt by legislators to repeal a 1996 initiative to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana and other illegal drugs to seriously ill patients.
Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said there was a good reason for that repeal, and he criticized the 1998 measure, known as the "Voter Protection Act," saying it was "put into place by the drug lords, if you will," referring to the backers of the original 1996 initiative.
But the 1998 restriction did pass, and lawmakers have been stuck with it ever since.
The problem, said Pearce, is that it leaves lawmakers with few options when the economy struggles. He said it makes no sense for legislators to be forced to cut funding for needed programs when money is coming in for things that, given the circumstances, are a lower priority.
SCR1009 says that any time state tax collections fall at least 1 percent below the spending plan adopted, legislators can supplement the budget with funds from those special programs.
That ranges from a 0.6 percentage-point sales tax increase approved by voters for education to two separate tobacco tax hikes, one that funds health care for those below the poverty level and another to create new programs for early childhood development.
Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, criticized the way SCR1009 is designed.
He pointed out that it is structured so that lawmakers would be constitutionally precluded from hiking taxes until they exhausted all of the funds from the special programs. Campbell said there may be circumstances when a tax hike would make more sense than destroying funding for a program.
Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said he sees the measure as a way of thwarting the will of voters. He said the reason people take issues to the ballot is because they cannot get their elected representatives to approve programs they want.
"The only way to establish real priorities in this state is to go through the process of raising the money, gathering the signatures and putting it on the ballot and then arguing in favor of it," Chabin said. "It is a whole lot harder to establish law in that process than it is to hire a lobbyist who would come down and be nice to us, take us to lunch and get it through law that way."
Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, acknowledged that the Voter Protection Act was put on the ballot by an initiative. But he pointed out that the Arizona Constitution also specifically allows lawmakers to send the question back to voters, who once again will have the last word.
He said that if voters agree, it will restore some of the power of lawmakers to do the job they were sent to the Capitol to do, including deciding how best to spend tax revenues. Gowan said it's set up that way to save voters from dealing with such details.
"I know people out there have a lot to do," he said. "They need to keep the economy rolling with their jobs and such, and they need to pay attention to their families.
"That's what we're up here for, that we represent them properly."