Tiny typo, big effect on ballot

Language calls for '.80 cent' tax hike on cigarettes, not 80 cents, or about $186 mil less than intended
The Arizona Republic
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Mary Jo Pitzl

Early-childhood-education and health programs on next month's ballot could lose millions of dollars if a misplaced decimal point is interpreted technically.

Proposition 203 is built around an 80-cent-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes to pay for the programs. But the ballot language calls for an ".80 cent/pack" tax increase, or 1/100th of what backers say they intended. That's less than 1 cent per pack.

Backers of the First Things First campaign always have promoted it as an 80-cent-per-pack tax increase. Even opponents have agreed it calls for an 80-cent hike. Proponents say a typo is to blame.

"We think it is very clear and voters understand and read that it is an 80 cents tax on tobacco," campaign spokesman Steve Roman said.

The folks in the Secretary of State's Office, who wrote the ballot-format language, agree the increase is 80 cents per pack. To interpret the .80 cents/pack language as 1/100th of the intended amount is a "highly technical" reading of the language, said Kevin Tyne, deputy secretary of state.

The Secretary of State's Office prepares the ballot format, and the Attorney General's Office reviews and approves it before it is sent to the printer.

Tyne said no one picked up on the misplaced decimal point during the drafting and review. Nor was it challenged at the 40 town-hall meetings the office has held around the state to explain the state's ballot propositions.

No one apparently noticed the misplaced decimal point until Tuesday, when a reader called a Republic columnist.

Tyne noted that the full text of Proposition 203 makes it clear the intended tax is 80 cents. For example, there is a reference to the tax being 4 cents per cigarette. At 20 cigarettes per pack, that adds up to 80 cents.

Still, the decimal point could prove troubling, said Ken Behringer of the Joint Legislative Council. He sees the misplaced decimal point as a typo but said it could be all someone needs to challenge the measure in court.

"I could imagine someone might make a challenge to say the ballot has wrong information on it," he said.

What remained unclear Tuesday was if Proposition 203 passed in the Nov. 7 election, what amount of tax would the state levy: 80 cents per pack or 0.80 cent? It would make a big difference in the cost of a pack of smokes. Arizona's tobacco tax currently is $1.18 per pack. It also could amount to an estimated cut of $186 million in tax revenues for the early-childhood-education and health programs, according to estimates prepared by legislative budget staffers.

One of the measure's opponents said it's one more problem in what he sees as a flawed proposition.

Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, has criticized the measure for failing to recognize that tobacco revenues will decrease over time, especially with a hefty tax hike, and the loss of revenue will hurt existing programs funded by the state's tobacco tax.

"I got a good laugh out of it," McCarthy said of the suddenly smaller tax increase.