Arizona GOP eyes ‘wild’ climate ballot measures

By Adam Aton | 04/08/2024 06:11 AM EDT

Republicans want to sidestep the Democratic governor by punting climate policies to voters, including conspiracy-tinged ideas that business groups oppose.

Alan Sibaja wears a head covering for sun protection while working with a leaf blower on July 24, 2023, in Phoenix.

Alan Sibaja wears a head covering for sun protection while working with a leaf blower on July 24, 2023, in Phoenix. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Arizona Constitution enshrines the right to religious freedom and free public education. This year, top Republican lawmakers are proposing to add another: the right to own gas-powered leaf blowers.

Legislation that’s passed the state House would ask voters to amend the state constitution to block any restrictions on devices based on the fuel they use. If it passes the state Senate, where Republicans hold a one-member majority, it would bypass the governor and go directly on November’s ballot.

“I don’t want you to take my blower away,” Republican Rep. Gail Griffin, chair of the state House natural resources committee, told a Democratic lawmaker at a recent hearing on her bill, H.C.R. 2050, which is co-sponsored by House Speaker Ben Toma. “It’s my choice which kind I use; it’s your choice which one that you use.”


That’s just one of a long list of ballot questions that Arizona voters could face this year as Republicans look to circumvent Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs’ veto pen by proposing referendums on climate and energy issues, along with others on cryptocurrency, immigration and elections.

Many of the proposals seek to bind the new Democratic administration or Democratic-governed cities that are pursuing climate action. Some bills echo conspiracy theories about the government using climate change as a pretext to control society.

The ideological nature of the proposals, observers said, reflects Republicans’ appeals to the conservative base that will decide GOP primaries — including the congressional primaries in which some state lawmakers are competing. Industry groups have lobbied against some of them. And environmentalists predict that, if any make it on the ballot, they could backfire.

“I think if you put it on the ballot, you will help drive voter turnout for environmental folks,” Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, said at a hearing on the fuel use measure. “Because we’re used to opposing things, and that really gets our folks out.”

Barry Aarons, executive director of the Arizona Propane Gas Association, also urged lawmakers not to put that one on the ballot. Arizona passed a law in 2020 blocking cities from banning gas stoves, he said, and the industry is “at peace with where we are.”

“To put this on the ballot is redundant, frankly unnecessary because of the law that passed in 2020 and just adds another ballot proposition, which adds confusion on the ballot,” he said.

Instead of industry leaders, conservative activists are the ones who are urging Arizona Republicans to put aggressive proposals on the ballot.

Another bill, which passed the state House with unanimous Republican support, would ask voters to forbid public bodies such as cities and universities from adopting a climate plan, trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or seeking to reduce car travel through biking or mass transit.

To the bafflement of Democrats, it also would prohibit limits on how much clothing people can own, replacing meat with insect protein or “furthering Marxist ideologies” — ideas that the bill’s opponents described as culture war paranoia.

Republican Rep. Austin Smith, the sponsor of that bill and a director at the conservative group Turning Point USA, said he crafted H.C.R. 2040 with Merissa Hamilton, a conservative activist, after learning about climate proposals from groups such as the World Economic Forum.

“It’s all online,” Smith said at a March hearing for his bill at the Senate Judiciary Committee. The chair of that committee, Sen. Anthony Kern, sponsored a companion bill in the upper chamber, and his committee voted to advance Smith’s bill.

The Republican strategy of putting far-right proposals on the ballot, say longtime observers of Arizona politics, is a way of papering over deep schisms within the Arizona GOP, which remains divided over former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 vote for President Joe Biden. (Kern was one of the so-called alternative electors that sought to deliver Arizona’s electoral votes to Trump.)

“Their majorities are fragile right now. … They can’t override the governor’s veto, and so they’re kinda caught,” said Ruth Jones, a former member of the Arizona Clean Elections Commission, which administers campaign finance laws and other electoral duties.

Going to the ballot allows some Republican lawmakers to distance themselves from a policy — because final approval lies with the public — while other lawmakers can tout the very presence of a ballot question as a win to conservative voters, she said.

“To refer things to the ballot is the safest way to do it. They can’t be blamed if it passes, and they can’t be blamed if it doesn’t,” said Jones, now a political science professor at Arizona State University.

GOP infighting already has sunk one climate-related ballot proposal, H.C.R. 2018, which would have asked voters to ban taxes based on vehicle miles traveled.

As electric vehicles erode gasoline tax revenue, some states like Oregon are experimenting with fees based on miles traveled. In Arizona, Republicans said such programs amount to government surveillance of drivers and could invite restrictions on travel. GOP lawmakers cited concerns around “15-minute cities,” a concept of walkable urbanism that has taken on conspiratorial overtones in right-wing media.

“There’s a full-fledged effort to restrict freedom of movement, colleagues,” Kern said as the Senate debated HCR 2018, pointing to congestion pricing in New York City and efforts in Washington state to reduce vehicle-miles traveled. “This effort isn’t some hidden, secret agenda. It’s right there in the planning documents of the bureaucracies that want to implement them.”

H.C.R. 2018 passed the House, but in the Senate, it encountered opposition from a single Republican: Sen. Ken Bennett, who said he worried about unintended consequences, such as hampering the state’s ability to integrate electric vehicles into its transportation funding system. Business groups had expressed reservations about it, too, he added.

“I can’t even get anyone to adopt reasonable changes to these resolutions,” Bennett said before providing the deciding vote against the legislation.

If any of the other proposals do make it on the ballot, they only would need a simple majority to pass — and future legislatures would be restricted from changing them. For that reason, environmental groups say they could be forced to sink time and money into defeating them that might otherwise go to Arizona’s marquee campaigns for senate and president.

“It’s a huge waste of resources,” Vianey Olivarria, executive director of Chispa Arizona, said of the effort needed to fight against proposals “based entirely on conspiracy theories.”

“They’re talking about 15-minute cities and eating bugs and banning clothing — like, it’s just wild,” she said. “This is no longer the party of John McCain.”

Thomas Volgy, a former mayor of Tucson, said the Republican ballot proposals could have the effect of tying up progressive organizers — but that it might backfire, because the state’s extreme heat and serious drought have made voters more attuned to climate issues than ever before.

“There’s been a lot of performance art coming out of the Legislature,” said Volgy, now a professor at the University of Arizona.

“If they do manage to put a bunch of these proposals on the ballot, well-meaning people are going to have to raise an enormous amount of money to try to contest it, particularly in Maricopa County, where advertising is significantly more expensive,” he said.

With enthusiasm low for a Biden-Trump rematch, both parties are looking for ways to motivate their voters, he said. Democrats are likely to get an abortion rights measure on the ballot this year, too. But while the conservative base might want anti-climate policy, he added, it’s much less popular statewide.

“People in the state are much more tuned into issues about the environment and climate change than they have been before,” Volgy said. “This is not the time to go before the public and ask them to engage in policy changes that would harm the environment.”