Potential ballot language troubles could sink sales-tax initiative

Arizona Capitol Times
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Jeremy Duda and Luige del Puerto

A possible mistake in the ballot language for the Quality Education and Jobs initiative could keep the proposed one-cent sales tax increase off the ballot in November.

The Arizona Tax Research Association, a prominent critic of the initiative, said they discovered a potential major flaw in the campaign’s signature-gathering efforts.

The Quality Education and Jobs campaign may have been collecting signatures on petition sheets using ballot language that is different than the version that was filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.

See the two versions

• Ballot language on Quality Education and Jobs website
• Ballot language filed with the Arizona Secretary of State

That could be problematic since statutes specifically require that the signature sheets must be attached “at all times during circulation to a full and correct copy of the title and text of the measure or constitutional amendment proposed or referred by the petition.”

Representatives of the Quality Education and Jobs campaign could not immediately be reached for comment.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett, whose office was informed of the problem on Monday by ATRA, said he will not accept any petitions for Quality Education and Jobs that include the version that is different from what was filed with his agency.

“We would reject anything that was collected, attached to something other than what they filed with us,” Bennett said. “Potentially it’s a huge issue, depending on whether they’ve been collecting the signatures for the version they have on their website or the version that was filed with our office. But we can only accept signatures collected, attached to the version that they’ve filed with us.”

Bennett said the campaign submitted both paper and electronic copies of the proposal to his office in March, but that the office never even looked at a disk containing the electronic copy until Monday, when ATRA brought the discrepancy to his attention.

The office has since discovered those versions don’t match, he said.

The only official version, Bennett said, is the paper version. That’s the version that the Secretary of State’s Office scans into its computers and puts on its website.

“In this case, when they gave us the printed copy, which is the official one, they also gave us a disk. We didn’t do anything with the disk until yesterday when this issue came up. And we verified that the version on their website is different than the version they filed with us,” Bennett said. “It looks like somebody made an error.”

The Quality Education and Jobs campaign committee announced several weeks ago that it had already collected 175,000 signatures. The initiative needs 172,809 to get on the ballot, and the committee is trying to get a cushion of about 50,000 in case of invalid signatures.

According to the Secretary of State’s Office website, the Quality Education and Jobs campaign has raised at least $429,000 and spent at least $420,807.

It is not immediately clear whether any signatures were gathered on petitions that included the version that’s not on the Secretary of State’s website or how many signatures might be accepted.

McCarthy said ATRA staff did spot checks of petitions being circulated, and all four they came across were using ballot language from the Quality Education and Jobs website, not the Secretary of State’s Office.

Signatures for ballot measures must be submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office by July 5, meaning the committee might not have enough time to collect additional signatures if needed, assuming the Secretary of State invalidates petition sheets that did not use the election office’s version.

If the critics are right, the signatures that were collected using the “incorrect” version could also be vulnerable to a legal challenge.

McCarthy said his group found out there were two versions of the ballot language when it did its analysis using a copy of the initiative language it downloaded from the Quality Education and Jobs campaign website.

The analysis showed that this version would earmark any revenue in excess of $1.544 billion to “University Scholarship, Operations and Infrastructure Fund” and a “State Infrastructure Fund.”

But this language, which is on page 12 of the version from the campaign’s website, is missing on the version that is on the Secretary of State’s website.

McCarthy said it was actually budget analysts who saw the ATRA chart and told him they were “dumbfounded by where you come up” with the scholarship money for the universities and state infrastructure.

McCarthy said that led them to suspect the pro-campaign might have been collecting signatures using the version with the “extra” language.

“We were able to determine, actually, that some of the petitions that are in circulation — I don’t know how many — were actually not the petitions that reflected the three buckets,” he said, referring to the version they printed from the Secretary of State’s website.

“We started wondering. My goodness! Did they actually have the wrong one out in circulation?” McCarthy said.

What’s looming is a potential legal challenge to the signatures based on the law that requires the circulation of the correct copy of an initiative.

“You can rest assured now that there will be some kind of a signature challenge on it,” McCarthy said.