State elections officials reject sales tax initiative signatures

AZ Capitol Times
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Luige del Puerto

The Secretary of State today rejected the signatures of more than 290,000 voters who signed petitions to let the public decide in November whether the state’s sales tax should be increased by one cent to pay for education and construction projects.

In a letter to the Quality Education and Jobs Committee, which is backing the initiative drive, Secretary of State Ken Bennett said its petition sheets weren’t attached to a full and correct copy of the initiative that was earlier filed with the state election office, as required by state law.

Yesterday, the committee submitted the signatures to the Bennett’s office.

The group is expected to contest the decision in court.

Bennett said because of the error, the group failed to submit enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

State law specifically requires that the petition 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.”

As the Arizona Capitol Times earlier reported, the group had submitted two versions of its initiative in March – one on paper and another in electronic format.

But the two versions didn’t match. The electronic version contained two extra paragraphs that directed about $350 million of the tax proceeds to higher education.

The group used the electronic version in gathering signatures, while Bennett’s office stamped the paper copy and considered that the official version.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, chair of the Quality Education and Jobs Committee, said earlier this month that the campaign would go to court if Bennett tries to keep the initiative off the ballot due to the language discrepancy, which she said was the result of a clerical error.

The campaign has retained former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley Feldman as its attorney.

Pedersen maintained that the electronic copy submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office contained the “correct version” of the initiative, and that more than 260,000 voters have signed that version because they want it on the ballot.

The Arizona Constitution and court precedent protect the right of citizen initiatives, she said, which are held to a standard known as “substantial compliance.”

Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, said his group found out there was 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.

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

But that language is missing on the version that is on the Secretary of State’s website.

McCarthy said that led them to suspect the 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 (language filed with the secretary of state),” he said.

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