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Court battles rage over 3 Arizona voter initiatives

Ross D. Franklin | Associated Press
Proponents of three voter initiatives who each turned in hundreds of thousands of signatures last month to qualify them for the November ballot are trying to beat back legal challenges that could prevent them from going before voters in November.

Proponents of three voter initiatives who each turned in hundreds of thousands of signatures last month to qualify them for the November ballot are trying to beat back legal challenges that could prevent them from going before voters.

Two of the measures -- one requiring disclosure of who is funding political campaigns and another rolling back or blocking efforts by Republicans to tighten voting rules -- are being challenged by pro-business groups. They alleged that paid petition circulators made errors or omitted required information on their registrations with the secretary of state or petitions.

The third measure, backed by a California-based employee union, would protect residents from predatory bill collection and raise the amount of assets shielded from bill collectors. It faces a similar challenge from a newly formed group funded by Arizona debt collection agencies, who say the description voters see when they are asked to sign was illegally misleading.

Lawyers for challengers and the initiative proponents have spent the past two weeks in court, and three different Phoenix judges will decide who is correct. Whichever sides lose are are expected to appeal directly to the state Supreme Court.

The challenge to the Predatory Debt Collection Protection Act is being weighed by a Phoenix judge who heard arguments last week. The committee that backs the initiative turned in more than twice the nearly 238,000 signatures required for it to make the ballot, although a review to determine if that initiative and the other two filed enough to make the ballot is ongoing.

The challengers told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Frank Moskowitz that part of the summary that specifically says that the measure “does not change existing law regarding secured debt” is inaccurate and that it should be blocked for that reason. Attorney Kory Langhofer told the judge that a major part of the initiative increases the amount of equity of a home protected under the homeowner’s exemption, directly contradicting the part about secured debt not being affected.

Backers of the law say that is twisting the language and the public was told of the “Homestand Exemption” expansion

“I just need more time to think about it,” Moskowitz said last week. “I think it can go both ways.”

The initiative, would raise homeowners’ homestead exemption from $150,000 to $400,000 and boost the value of autos and cash shielded from creditors and limits interest rates on medical debts.

Rodd McLeod, the spokesman for committee backing the measure, Healthcare Rising, said they believe they’ll win.

“We think these folks are afraid to face us on the ballot so they’re trying to play word games and use technical arguments to deny the people right to make their own choice,” McLeod said.

Amber Russo, spokeswoman for a group called Protect Our Arizona and president of a Tucson debt collection firm, said that the initiative could make it harder for average Arizonans to access credit if it passes.

“The same group of people that Healthcare Rising is trying to protect, they’re actually going to end up hurting them in the long run,” she said Monday.

The debt initiative is also being challenged based in allegedly deficient paperwork and registrations by petition circulators, as are other other two initiatives.

The Arizona Free Enterprise Club, which advocates for lower taxes, fewer regulations and limited government, is part of a coalition trying to kick the “Voters Right to Know” measure off the ballot. Scot Mussi, the group’s president, said it opposes the measure because it would require donors to his or any other nonprofit group that spends money on elections to be identified.

“The practical implications of it is that this information will be used to dox, harass and intimidate anyone for supporting various organizations,” Mussi said Monday, He pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last year that rejected California’s effort to have non-profits identify their major donors.

Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat who paired with a Republican former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson to get the measure on the ballot, said the case Mussi points to is completely different than his measure requiring political spending to be made public.

And he said there are strong protections for people fearful of harassment and that people deserve to know who is behind political messages. This is their fourth try to qualify their “Outlaw Dirty Money” measure on the ballot.

“All I would say that that is that every voter in Arizona that gives more than $50 to a candidate has to disclose their name, their home address and their employer,” he added. “Why does the Free Enterprise Club think they’re any different?”

Mussi’s group also is suing to stop the measure that would block election law changes enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and expand access to voting.

“This ballot initiative is a 25-page measure that makes over 60 different changes to Arizona law,” Mussi said. “Many of these changes and radical reforms they are doing are not supported, and they are trying to sneak in their confusing measure and see if they can get it passed.”

Proponents argued that Mussi is himself trying to confuse voters, and that the there are no changes to voter ID laws and that its main focus is protecting election fairness.,

“The opposition is already trying to manipulate the process and the facts surrounding this measure,” said Stacy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Arizonans for Fair Elections. “Ultimately, it keeps the Legislature from overturning the results of an election, installing electors fraudulently like they did in Arizona and hiring lunatics to audit the process.′