Backers of Arizona 1-cent tax to file suit over rejected petitions

Arizona Daily Star
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Tim Steller

Supporters of a sales-tax initiative that could go to voters in November plan to file suit today against the Arizona secretary of state to ensure that it does.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Ken Bennett rejected the approximately 290,000 signatures filed Monday by the Quality Education and Jobs campaign, led by Tucsonan Ann-Eve Pedersen.

The office received 19,000 pages of signatures Monday and quickly reviewed a 954-page sample, said Matt Roberts, spokesman for Bennett. A previously noted problem existed on all the petitions, Roberts said: The petition language differed from a paper version filed with the Secretary of State's Office in March and posted online.

"Everyone recognizes this will be litigated in court, so we expedited our review," Roberts said.

And the proponents are expediting their legal challenge. It will be filed today and argued by former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman, Pedersen said. She noted that at the same time the campaign filed an older version of the initiative in a paper copy, it also filed a digital version on a disc, which she says should have been the version used by the secretary of state.

"We complied with the requirements stated in the statute," Pedersen said. "The Constitution and the case law all make it very clear that a hyper-technicality does not rule a citizen's initiative."

She and initiative opponent Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, agreed that the state Supreme Court will likely end up deciding whether the petitions must be accepted.

The initiative would extend a 1-cent sales-tax increase that Arizona voters approved in May 2010 and is scheduled to expire in May 2013. The initiative would establish a formula by which revenue from the tax is distributed to K-12 education, higher education, transportation projects and other activities.

It's in the distribution formula that the distinction appears between the paper version filed with the secretary of state and the language on the petitions. The formula for distribution of the tax proceeds distributes the first $1 billion one way, the next $550 million another way, and the rest another way.

It's in that third level of distributions where the distinction appears between the paper version received by the secretary of state and the version on the petitions. That version adds a fourth formula for distribution of sales-tax money beyond $1.9 billion collected.

Regardless, McCarthy says, the big problem with the initiative is that it imposes "ballot-box budgeting" on the Legislature by requiring where the revenue must flow. That robs the government of needed flexibility in carrying out its primary duty, he said.

But initiative supporters point to its restrictions on how sales-tax revenue will be spent as one of the initiative's selling points. The sales-tax money raised by the May 2010 iniatitive was intended to provide funding for education, but it went into the state's general fund and could be used any way, Pedersen said.