Filing of petitions heightens Arizona sales-tax fight

Group aims to make temporary levy permanent
The Arizona Republic
Monday, June 25, 2012
Mary Jo Pitzl

The already simmering battle over a permanent sales-tax increase heated up a few degrees Monday as supporters filed petitions to put the matter on the November ballot.
Backers of the Quality Education and Jobs initiative filed the signatures of more than 290,000 registered voters with the Arizona secretary of state. But whether the measure to permanently increase the state sales tax by 1 cent per dollar will get before voters remains unclear.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett's office said it accepted the 60 boxes of petitions for processing. But it will take at least a few days to determine if the wording on the petitions meets legal standards. Once he makes a decision, the parties on either side of the issue can sue.

The Quality Education measure proposes to make permanent the temporary sales tax that expires next May. It would direct the proceeds to a range of programs, mostly education, and would block lawmakers from cutting other funding sources that support those programs.

It outlines a complex system for distributing the sales-tax money, with education -- from public K-12 schools to charter schools to universities and community colleges -- getting the lion's share of the money. Currently, the tax raises just under $1 billion a year.

The measure also benefits construction projects, with the goal of making up for the $1.5 billion in highway dollars lawmakers redirected over the past 12 years. And it contains money for a children's health-care program.

The proposal has sparked opposition because it calls for a tax hike and because it removes legislative control. Arizona's state sales tax would be 6.6 percent if voters approve.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, chairwoman of the Quality Education and Jobs campaign, said the measure grew of out frustration with continual cuts to public education.
"This would not be necessary if the Legislature had a history of adequately funding education," she said.

But controversy over the ballot language makes the courts an unavoidable stop before getting to the Nov. 6 ballot. Secretary of State spokesman Matt Roberts said Bennett wants to determine the quickest way to get the matter to court.

Critics last week said Bennett should reject the petitions because the ballot language attached to them was not identical to the paper version supporters filed last spring with the secretary of state.

The difference is significant, said Kevin McCarthy, executive director of the Arizona Tax Research Association. His group's analysis shows the version circulated to voters would deprive K-12 education of millions of dollars a year after the 1 cent per dollar tax collected more than $1.1 billion in any given year.

Pedersen dismissed the complaint as a "hypertechnical" squabble that ignores the will of hundreds of thousands of voters. She noted a CD also filed with Bennett's office contained language that exactly matched the petitions.

The dispute over the petition language highlights the measure's hot-button nature.

GOP legislative leaders, as well as the president of the State Board of Education, are on record opposing it.

On Monday, Americans for Prosperity filed a complaint alleging some of the volunteer petition circulators were in fact paid. That's because they were entered in a drawing to win the newest version of the iPad if they gathered a certain number of petition signatures, according to the complaint from the anti-tax group.

Pedersen said the complaints come from opponents who fear the public would support a measure that boosts education.

"The people who are against this are not friends of education," she said.

She said despite garnering 41 percent more signatures than the 290,849 required, the campaign won't be a "cakewalk." She called on supporters to help promote the measure through the summer and fall.