Dismantling the AZ Constitution

Phoenix Magazine – June 2017

Mike O’Neil

Signed and ratified in 1912, the Arizona Constitution reflected a strongly progressive/reformist outlook towards government. Its core principle is stated explicitly in Article II, Section 2: “All political power is inherent in the people.”

The People, not elected officials. But these elected representatives are working to degrade and unwind several basic constitutional provisions. And that should make every Arizonan’s blood boil.

Based on the reformist principles popular in the early 20th Centruy, the state’s founding document envisioned a robust use of citizen initiatives, as well as referenda, so voters could bypass the legislature if they felt their representatives were out of touch with their preferences and needs. It also gave citizens the authority to recall officials from office. In fact, Arizona’s original application for statehood was rejected by President William Taft because it permitted the recall of judges. (The authors of the Arizona constitution omitted that feature – and it was quickly put back in once statehood was granted). 

Other constitutional provisions reflected the belief that ultimate political power inheres in the people:

         Free speech rights stronger than those in the US Constitution

         Advisory popular vote for US Senators (who at the time were still elected by the legislature)

         A weak executive

         Two year terms for elected officials

         Direct primaries

Many of these provisions were steeped in notions of fundamental distrust of government. That distrust sounds a lot like the rhetoric of present-day self-proclaimed conservatives. But the similarity is only rhetorical: In Arizona, these same elected officials have consistently acted to undermine citizen preferences whenever those preferences diverge from their own.

Many recent citizen initiatives are steeped in that same sense of distrust in government. Over the vehement opposition of the legislature, Arizona voters have provided for (among others):

         Public Campaign Funding (through “Clean Elections”)

         An Independent Redistricting Commission (wrestling that control from the legislature)

         Term Limits

         Increased education funding (several times)

         A higher minimum wage (the legislature is still fuming over this one)

And last year 48 percent of the population voted for a seriously flawed marijuana legalization bill, suggesting that the next time that is before the voters, it is likely to pass.

These feats of direct citizen lawmaking have rattled our state lawmakers. Based on flimsily contrived and transparent rationales, the current legislature has taken it upon itself to undermine the ability of voters to enact laws directly.  It passed one law prohibiting paying signature gatherers on a “per signature” basis. The effect of this will not be evident to most citizens, but every member of the legislature knows how this will cripple initiative efforts: they were careful not to apply such rules to their own petitions. A second law applies a “strict compliance” standard of all petitions. Any petition which is the least bit unclear or has an invalid signature is already tossed out.  Strict compliance permits tossing petitions for minor non-substantive errors like the size of the font and the margins on a petition. And a third law is under consideration. The goal is clear: make it impossible for citizens to ever get an initiative on the ballot again.

Nowhere is the disconnect between citizen and legislative preferences clearer than support for public education. 

Universal public education was a clear value expressed in Arizona’s Constitution. That document mandated the provision of free public education: “The legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be established and maintained in every school district.” Likewise, over 100 years ago, when university education was unusual, it mandated that “The university and all other state educational institutions shall be open to students of both sexes, and the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible.”

Free public education? The cuts to public education in the last 10 years have been draconian. Most dramatically, the legislature simply ignored a voter approved initiative that mandated maintenance of funding. It argued that “we don’t have the money” which, of course, was only true because the same legislature had passed annual tax cuts which ensured an empty treasury. The courts saw through this ruse, and when education advocates sued they won at every level. The legislature appealed multiple rulings, forcing the schools to settle for about 70 cents on the dollar and all of that by raiding a state trust fund already earmarked for education.  This year, they voted it expand vouchers to private schools at the expense of the constitutionally mandated “common (public) schools.”

You’d think that the requirement that university education be “as nearly free as possible” would be so clear that it could not be ignored. Think again. While university tuition was kept low throughout two world wars and the Great Depression, in 2007 an economic downturn was used as an excuse to cut university funding dramatically. As a result, university tuition approximately doubled. Now, according to the College Board only 12 states now have higher in-state tuition than does Arizona.  “As nearly free as possible?” Hardly.

Legislative efforts to curtail citizen power is not new.  In 1996, by a two-to-one margin, voters passed an act legalizing Medical Marijuana. The legislature simply repealed the voter-approved initiative. Voters were outraged and passed the Voter Protection Act in 1998, which prohibits the legislature from tampering with a voter-passed initiative.  Now the legislature argues that this inability to alter citizen-passed legislation is why initiatives are bad, conveniently ignoring that their own bad faith actions directly caused this provision to be enacted.

Kabosh citizen initiatives?  And underfund education? All in the name of “conservativism”? Few actions could be further from the explicit intent of Arizona’s founding document.


Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.