Sun, Dec. 15

Democrats seek more GOP transparency on ballot issues

PHOENIX -- Democrat lawmakers accused their Republican colleagues of hiding relevant information from voters about upcoming ballot measures.

The Democrats complained that there are key provisions in two measures that will be on the November ballot that are not included in the explanations that will 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.

But the Republican-controlled Legislative Council, tasked with coming up with the explanations, rejected most of the changes suggested by the Democrats. And Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said if voters want to know more about either measure they should go and 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 to put the burden on voters to do their own research 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

Thursday’s discussion.

The Republican-controlled Legislature actually approved the expansion last year.

As originally enacted in 2011, the program was solely for children with special needs. Since then, however, supporters have gradually expanded eligibility so it now covers children in foster care, children of military, children from reservations and students attending public schools rated D or F.

About 3,500 children now get the aid which for most is about $5,000 a year.

The 2017 change agreed to remove virtually all preconditions to getting a voucher, though lawmakers had to agree to a cap of about 30,000 by 2021 to get the necessary votes.

But members of Save Our Schools Arizona got enough signatures to block enactment until voters get a chance to ratify or reject the proposal in November. It is on the ballot as Proposition 305.

Beth Lewis, who chairs SOS Arizona, had her own complaints about the ballot explanations.

She said it fails to clearly explain to voters that the money that goes to parents to send their children to private and parochial schools is money that’s diverted from state aid to public schools.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chander, pointed out that the explanation does say the vouchers “are funded by state tax dollars.’’

The other fight is over a GOP-backed plan to ask voters to put some curbs on the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

Most notably it would require that the commission to get approval of the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council for new rules, a six member-panel whose members are appointed by the governor. That changes the current situation where the commission, created by voters in 1998, has constitutional authority to not just provide public funds for candidates who refuse private donations but also to demand that certain groups seeking to influence candidate elections to disclose the source of their donations.

Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, complained that while lawmakers provided lots of information about vouchers -- which they like -- they skimped on the details of exactly what the commission does, like the enforcement of campaign finance laws.

Mesnard, however, called those detains unnecessary.

Whether this second proposal actually makes the ballot remains unclear.

A judge is set to hear arguments next month on whether the measure violates a requirement that constitutional amendments, which have to go to voters, must be limited to a single subject. Challengers say this measure, tentatively numbered Proposition 306, asks not just to limit the commission’s rule-making powers but also curbs how candidates can spend the public money they get.

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On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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