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Updated Apr 16, 2013 - 6:46 pm

Arizona lawmakers back bills to stay in office

PHOENIX -- One of the perks of incumbency is the ability to make it harder for your opponents to one day sweep you out from office.

The Republican-led Arizona Legislature has embraced that truism this year with two election overhauls aiming to protect ambitious incumbents while also creating new hurdles for voters looking to give unpopular politicians the boot.

One measure would add a primary to all voter-initiated recall elections and ensure the incumbent advances to the general election regardless of the primary outcome. That means rivals from the same political party would have to beat the incumbent twice to win office.

The bill would take effect retroactively in January 2013 and would apply to an ongoing effort by opponents of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to force a recall election.

The other measure seeks to make it easier for elected officials to launch campaigns for another office without triggering the state's ``Resign to Run'' law.

Republicans argued the changes will increase fairness in Arizona elections.

``I might have called it, `The Transparency and Intention' bill,'' Senate President Andy Biggs said of the ``Resign to Run'' measure.

The Senate advanced both bills Tuesday with opposition from the Democratic minority. The House passed the measures in March. Gov. Jan Brewer must sign both bills into law for the changes to take effect.

House Bill 2282 would help prevent recalls like the one that forced out former Senate president Russell Pearce in 2011. He was the first Arizona legislator to be recalled under the state's decades-old process.

``It is extremely frustrating,'' said Democratic organizer Randy Paraz, a vocal Arpaio critic who participated in the effort to recall Pearce. ``They are only changing it because we were successful, so this is a total overreaction.''

Republicans said the legislation would help prevent the ouster of elected officials who are targeted only because of their party affiliation.

``The rest of us go out there and we run in primaries, which are doggone tough, and then we get to go run in generals, which are doggone tough,'' Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough said. ``So that's how people get elected if they have opponents in primaries.''

Democrats countered that the existing process works fine for voters.

``They are very hard to accomplish,'' Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo said. ``But we are making it more difficult, we are making it more difficult for voters to have that opportunity to hold us accountable. We should not be doing this.''

Gallardo proposed a floor amendment seeking to remove the retroactivity clause, but it failed without Republican support.

Democratic organizers said the change could make it more difficult to remove Arpaio from office.

``They should call it, `The Save Arpaio's Butt' bill because that's what it does,'' Paraz said. ``This is basically ending the recall process in Arizona if this gets signed.''

Lilia Alvarez, co-founder of the Arpaio recall effort, said the measure would be challenged in court if it became law.

``The recalls were intended to provide citizens with remedy. It was never intended to protect incumbents,'' she said. ``It will be absolutely unconstitutional.''

Meanwhile, House Bill 2157 would redefine official candidacy to only include the formal paperwork filing. Current law requires officials not in the last year of their term to resign their seat once they make a formal announcement that they're running or when they file official paperwork with the Secretary of State.

Biggs said too many candidates conduct stealth campaigns under the current law.

``Everybody can skirt the law if they want to. They can file a committee, they can raise money, they can circulate petitions, but the one thing they can't do is say `I am running for office,''' he said.

But Gallardo said the measure further encourages surreptitious campaigning because candidates will be able to seek higher office without repercussion so long as they don't file election paperwork.

``This bill is a waste of time,'' he said. ``Candidates would be allowed to announce they are running for office without violating the `Resign to Run' law.''

Lawmakers are rarely punished for violating the law under its current form.

In 2009, former state Attorney General Terry Goddard and four state legislators were allowed to retain their seats after a Pima County Attorney investigation found some of their actions were questionable.

In the run-up to the 1998 elections, then-state Sen. John Kaites was able to keep his legislative seat despite raising more than $200,000 for an attorney general bid. A special prosecutor hired by state and county prosecutors said Kaites did not break the law.

Voters passed the ``Resign to Run'' law in 1980 to ensure election officials serve without the distraction of campaigning for other offices.

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