Prop and Circumstance

Initiative and referendum campaigns cost more than $19 million last year, but the biggest checkbook didn't always win.

WHEN ARIZONANS went to the polls last November, they had to choose among 14 different propositions, ranging from land-use policy to healthcare coverage. Voters passed nine of the ballot questions and rejected five.

Fourteen props are a lot for voters to wade through. The crowded ballot brought cries from critics who complain that initiatives are overloading the ballot and requiring voters to decide complex issues based on relatively little information.

While it's true that most of the initiatives did deal in complex matters, it's something of a myth that they overloaded the ballot. Only six of the 14 ballot props actually came from initiative efforts: a growth-Prop management proposal, two healthcare initiatives, a redistricting proposal, a ban on bilingual education and an unsuccessful attempt by U S West/Qwest to reduce its regulation by the state.

The other eight statewide propositions were referenda placed on the ballot by lawmakers. Critics of the legislature frequently complain that elected officials were putting the issues on the ballot rather than making decisions themselves, but that's proposition myth number two. Most referenda last year amended the state constitution, which requires voter approval. (Although one could argue that the legislature has been too willing to amend the state constitution, it's hard to make the case that they were ducking their responsibility.)

The initiative process is "part of the western tradition," says Hank Kenski, a professor with the UA communications department who moonlights as regional director of Sen. Jon Kyl's Southern Arizona office. "Most of the states west of the Mississippi have it; many east of the Mississippi do not. It's an extension of the populism we had earlier in the 20th century--if your elected officials were not doing what you wanted them to do, you had another mechanism to use to pursue your goals."

Peter Goudinoff, a former state senator who teaches in the UA poli-sci department, sees initiatives as "just another aspect of politics. You can criticize the initiative process all you want, but would you repeal it?"

Goudinoff says the initiative process has moved away from the citizen effort envisioned when the state constitution was drafted. "Certainly, you can argue that the initiative process has not worked out the way the framers intended," he says. "The progressives 100 years ago that saw this as the great reform. Their vision was a truly voluntary effort. It's pretty rare to see that happen."

All six initiative efforts depended on various level of professional signature-gathering support, which often runs into the six figures. And that's just the start for a campaign.

All told, political committees spent more than $19 million on statewide ballot props last year, with more than $13.7 million being spent on the initiative campaigns.

"That's pretty gross," says Tom Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona who served as mayor of Tucson between 1987 and 1991. Exhibit A: the campaign against Prop 202, the Citizens Growth Management Initiative, which had the biggest price tag.

Opponents, primarily from the Growth Lobby, spent more than $4.9 million in opposition to the initiative, which would have forced communities to enact strict development plans and charge steep impact fees. Supporters, primarily the Sierra Club and the Grand Canyon Trust, spent only $873,073, including the cost of getting the proposition on the ballot. Outspent more than 5-to-1, the greens captured only 30 percent of the vote on election day.

Volgy observes that early public opinion polls showed that 75 percent of the voters would support a growth management initiative. "But the people who were supporting it didn't have an opportunity to respond to the enormous amount of money that was spent against it," he says. "They could not counter all the misstatements that were created about it until the public, listening to one side of the debate, got real nervous about what this thing was going to mean."

But in the case of Prop 100, the other land-use issue on the ballot, the bigger checkbook didn't carry the day. A facet of Arizona's Growing Smarter program placed on the ballot by the legislature, the referendum would have reformed Arizona's state land trust policies by allowing up to 3 percent of state trust land to be set aside for preservation. The prop had high-powered support from Gov. Jane Dee Hull and some development interests, who spent $1.2 million on the campaign.

Environmental organizations across the state banded together to oppose the effort, including groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Sonoran Institute, which often sidestep high-profile political battles. Critics of the plan complained that the 3 percent cap was too low.

"It was really contrary to the idea of recognizing the conservation values of those lands," says Luther Propst, who spearheaded the opposition campaign in Southern Arizona. Although they spent only $160,600 on their campaign, they narrowly defeated the proposition 51-49 percent.

Kenski says the narrow win shows that campaigns don't have to spend more than the opposition to win. "The trick is not that you spend more than the other side, but that you need a minimum to get your message out," says Kenski. "And quite often, these people don't have the minimum to get their message out."

Propst says the environmental coalition that beat Prop 100 is already planning an initiative for the 2002 ballot regarding preservation of state trust land. "We're already working on those issues," Propst says. "We're going in with the understanding that we're in a pretty good position having beat them. The business community has to come up with something other than just opposing us again, so they're at the table with us. On the other hand, they make it very clear that if we come up with something they find really offensive, they can beat us. So it's an interesting dance."

Propst, the lone environmentalist on the state Growing Smarter Commission that developed recommendations on state trust land reform, was angered when the legislature changed the plan before passing it along to voters. Although he's heartened by the more moderate makeup of the legislature this session, he's still finding it hard to trust lawmakers. "If they want to play," says Propst, "we make it clear that, 'Sure, if you want to play, you can do it our way, but if you don't do it our way, we're going to put out a competing measure on it.' Unlike last time, we're just not negotiating with them."

Goudinoff notes that the threat of an initiative often forces the legislature to tackle the issue. "If it looked like you were going to get the signatures, then the legislature acted," Goudinoff says, recalling how the governor and legislature began developing Growing Smarter in reaction to the Sierra Club's failed effort to put a growth management initiative on the 1998 ballot.

A similar dynamic was at work with a 1998 initiative campaign that would have allowed open primaries. The proposal so spooked lawmakers that they offered an alternative referendum that allowed independent voters to vote in primaries. Ultimately, the initiative backers weren't able to get enough signatures to get their plan on the ballot, "which was good because it would have likely been ruled unconstitutional," says Goudinoff. "That's how you got independents voting in primaries."

THE SMALLER CHECKBOOK ALSO carried the day in the fight between competing health care measures funded through tobacco settlement dollars. The campaign for Prop 204, which expanded healthcare coverage to any individual living below the federal poverty level, cost $552,188. That's less than half the $1,282,533 that was spent on the campaign for Prop 200, a similar initiative backed by hospitals across the state that would have limited expanded coverage to low-income parents and children. Neither initiative had formal opposition campaigns, but both urged voters to not support the other. On election day, Prop 204, which enjoyed editorial support from most major newspapers throughout the state, was supported by 63 percent of the voters, while Prop 200 captured only 58 percent. Because it got fewer votes than Prop 204, Prop 200 will not be implemented, even though it passed on election day.

State Sen. Andy Nichols, who led the campaign for Prop 204, says the state is working out details on implementation. He hopes coverage will be available for the first group by April and that the prop will be fully implemented by October. (See "Healthy Prognosis.")

The remaining three initiatives were largely backed and opposed by deep pockets. Prop 106, which stripped lawmakers of redistricting power and put it in the hands of an appointed five-member committee, was primarily funded by Scottsdale developer Jim Pederson, who contributed more than $650,000 of the $880,000 spent on the campaign.

Two political committees, Keep the People In Charge Fight 106 and It's Not Fair! No On Prop 106, spent a combined $370,000 opposing the initiative, with funding primarily from the Nevada Republican Party and the Republican National Committee.

Prop 106 passed with 56 percent of the vote. The new law is already being implemented; a list of 25 finalists has already been selected by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments and forwarded to the Arizona Legislature. From there, four finalists will be picked by the Senate President, the Senate Minority Leader, the Speaker of the House and the House Minority Leader. The four finalists will pick a fifth member.

Kenski sees Prop 106 as an example of poorly drawn legislation, pointing to comments by Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Zlaket that the initiative's language is sloppy. "These substitutes for legislation often are fairly imprecise and difficult to follow," Kenski says. "Apparently, in this case, they are doing the best job they can, but that's a problem with a redistricting committee proposal. I don't think the legislature is always accurate, as in the case of alternative fuels, where they really dropped the ball, but I think they are less prone to making the kinds of mistakes that often occur in initiatives in terms of imprecision and inaccuracies."

Goudinoff, who is a finalist for the redistricting committee, is more supportive of the redistricting effort, which he says the legislature would have never willingly tackled.

Prop 203, which banned bilingual education in Arizona classrooms, was funded almost entirely by California entrepreneur Ron Unz, who successfully pushed a similar ban in California in 1998. English for the Children-AZ spent $229,785, which it received from Unz's political arm, English for the Children-CA. The California effort cost more than million dollars and passed with 61 percent of the vote.

Volgy notes the cost difference shows that Arizona initiative campaigns are cheaper than those in California.

"What makes us more vulnerable is the difference in size between the two states," Volgy says. "It requires an enormous amount of money to try to buy the overwhelming percentage of the media in Southern California, whereas it takes a lot less here."

Opponents of Prop 203 outspent Unz through three different political committees, which spent a combined $348,848 against the measure. Funded primarily though Native American tribes and education organizations, the committees got off to a late start and weren't able to run an effective opposition campaign.

The ultimate impact of the proposition remains to be seen. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan set a controversy last week when she suggested enforcing the law would not be a top priority of her department. She later backed off that statement, but state attorneys are still working out the details for implementation of the law.

The final initiative, Prop 108, was a major special-interest battle. The prop, put on the ballot by U S West/Qwest in an effort to amend the state constitution to deregulate telephone service, proved to be an expensive failure. The phone company, through the political committee Arizonans for Consumer Choice and Fair Competition, spent more than $2 million on the campaign for Prop 108, including the cost of gathering signatures, only to get blown away by 80 percent of the voters at the ballot box. AT&T and Cox Communications provided the lion's share of the $2.2 million that Arizonans Against Higher Phone Rates and Poor Service spent opposing the measure.

WITH SO MANY props on the ballot, "we run the risk of having too many things on the ballot and overloading voters," says Kenski. "It's a tough job for the media," which often allow some props to slide through the cracks.

Kenski points to Prop 105, a referendum which exempted vacant land owned by cemeteries from taxation. Backed by a $172,689 campaign funded by the cemetery industry, the proposal sailed through with 68 percent of the vote.

Although the proposal had nothing to do with taxing graves, the campaign successfully made that the issue. "That was very misleading," says Kenski. "Who wants to tax graves?"

Groups backing Prop 301, the referendum that increased the state sales tax by six-tenths of a cent to benefit education, spent more than $2.1 million on the campaign. The prop passed by 54 percent with no organized opposition.

Kenski says the prop could have gone down "if you had had more money on the other side, hitting away at sales tax, saying it isn't the right mechanism. The rural counties all voted no on it. It passed in Maricopa and Pima counties."

Like 'em or not, initiative campaigns aren't going away. Along with the aforementioned state land trust initiative, several campaigns are in the works, including an effort to force background checks for anyone purchasing weapons at gun shows. Supporters of a failed effort to eliminate the state income tax, which was thrown off the ballot by the Arizona Supreme Court, have also said they will say they will return with a constitutional version of the measure in 2002.

Last year, Gov. Jane Dee Hull called for stiffening the requirements for putting an issue on the ballot. But increasing the number of signatures required just makes it harder for volunteer efforts to make the cut. Well-funded efforts, such as last year's Qwest initiative, would still find their way onto the ballot.

Reformers would face another challenge: Any change in the requirements for putting an initiative on the ballot would be a constitutional amendment, which would require a vote of the people, who seem reluctant to give up their power at the ballot box.

"I think it would be perceived as an effort to take power away from the people," says Kenski, who points to the results of Prop 102, a referendum last year that would have required a two-thirds vote to pass initiatives regarding wildlife policy. The prop was firmly rejected by 62 percent of the voters.

The fight over Prop 102 was another example of the smaller checkbook carrying the day. Supporters, which included outdoors groups and the National Rifle Association, spent nearly $1.6 on a slick advertising campaign, while opponents, which included the Humane Society, spent only $220,000, much of which--$191,274--was spent after October 19.

"They were badly, badly outspent on the money, but they were effective," Kenski says. "The people pushing the prop said they were going to save wildlife, and of course it was just the opposite. Somehow the message got out that this was not going to save wildlife."

Volgy says the price tag of proposition spending will likely continue to climb. "There is so much money being thrown into politics all across the country, and the trend is not toward less but a lot more," he says. "The initiative route becomes simply another way in which well-funded special interests can have their way."

Goudinoff finds that the process "has its pluses and minuses. The banning of bilingual education is a demagogic use, but on balance it does function as progressive tool. About 80 percent of the time the people get it right."

Kenski says Arizonans have a long tradition of supporting the initiative process. "When we came into the union in 1912, William Howard Taft was not going to sign the bill, because we had all these radical things like initiative, referendum and recall, especially recall of judges," he says. "My God, he did not go for that at all. And so what we did, we stripped it out, we got into the union, and the first thing we did was amend the constitution and put 'em all in."