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Ballot language troubles could sink sales-tax initiative

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

Supporters of the sales tax extension are blaming a “clerical error” in the Secretary of State’s Office that led to petition circulators using ballot language that is different than what state elections officials say is the official language.

See the two versions

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

Secretary of State Ken Bennett, whose office was informed of the problem on Monday by the Arizona Tax Research Association – a critic of the proposed sales-tax increase – said he will not accept any petitions for Quality Education and Jobs initiative 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.”

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.”

Bennett said the campaign submitted both paper and electronic copies of the initiative to his office in March, but the office never 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.

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

“It looks like somebody made an error,” Bennett said.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, chair of the Quality Education and Jobs committee, said the campaign will 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 said 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.”

“This is not a fatal error. Any technical issue here is not a fatal error, unless the statute specifically says that it is,” Pedersen said. “The Constitution protects the right of citizens to have initiatives be placed on the ballot, and that’s the guiding principle here is what is intended in the Constitution.”

Feldman said the substantial compliance rule is meant to protect the will of the voters.

“Legislative policy and the policy of the founders of this state (is) that there should not be any technicalities to it, and what the voters want on the ballot should be on the ballot. That’s why there’s a rule of substantial compliance,” he said.

The initiative needs 172,809 to get on the ballot.

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.

The campaign said today that it had completed its petition drive and would submit its signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office in about a week, after it finishes a final validity check.

Signatures for ballot measures must be submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office by July 5.

ATRA President Kevin 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.

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.

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.

See the press release put out by Quality Education and Jobs late today

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