Arizona ballot measure for 1-cent sales tax headed to court
Published: August 13, 2012 at 8:47 am
That’s if the justices rule that the initiative measure can go the ballot, and for now, that question remains.
If put on the ballot and approved by voters, the penny-on-the-dollar increase would take effect in mid-2013 upon the expiration of a same-size temporary increase approved in 2010.
Supporters say the state needs more money for schools and other services and that the resulting spending would be worthwhile investment. Opponents say taxpayers shouldn’t be burdened and that the state should live within its means.
But the issue now, the one being debated in court, is whether a clerical error that resulted in two paragraphs being omitted from a paper copy of the measure filed at the start of the initiative campaign is enough to keep if off the ballot.
Public school groups, business alliances, university students and others who support the initiative are on one side, arguing the voters’ right to use the initiative process to set public policy shouldn’t be thwarted over a minor paperwork mistake that was caught in plenty of time to prevent confusion, let alone any real damage.
Not so, say election officials as well as initiative opponents who include Republican legislative leaders, a business-backed taxpayers group and a conservative pro-growth advocacy group. They say there’s already been confusion over how the sale tax would work and that the initiative must be kept off the ballot because supporters didn’t play by rules that protect the integrity of the initiative process.
Though there are some quibbles about details, what’s not in dispute is the gist of how the current controversy began.
When initiative supporters launched their petition campaign back in March, they filed a paper copy of the measure with Secretary of State Ken Bennett’s office and also submitted an electronic version on a compact disc.
Because of what’s been described as a botched printing job in the office of a lawyer who helped prepare the initiative, the paper copy was an outdated version that lacked two paragraphs spelling out how some of the sales tax revenue would be spent.
The CD version included the two paragraphs, as supporters intended all along, as did required copies attached to petitions circulated to voters.
The error wasn’t noticed until months later, before the circulated petitions were filed but long after Bennett’s office posted the incomplete version on its website.
The court case began after Bennett in June declared the petitions invalid because the copies of the initiative attached to petitions didn’t match the paper filing with his office.
Initiative supporters sued. Noting that the initiative petitions circulated to voters had the intended version of the initiative, a trial judge overturned Bennett’s decision. He appealed to the Supreme Court.
With the two paragraphs, there would be smaller increases in funding for universities and transportation projects. Without the paragraphs, there’d be larger funding increases for K-12 education.
The legislative budget staff said $650 million is at stake over 17 years, out of a total of $25 billion of sales tax revenue during the same period.
That’s too small a percentage of the overall revenue to sway any voter’s decision so the error is inconsequential, and there’s no evidence that the error confused anybody during the petition process, initiative supporters argued.
Bennett’s lawyers argued that there was confusion among those trying to analyze the proposal, and that people who viewed the version on his office’s web site could have misinformed others. And the differing spending numbers alone should decide the issue, his lawyers said.
Final briefs in the case were filed Aug. 3, and the Supreme Court could rule at any time. The justices haven’t said whether they’ll first schedule a hearing to hold oral arguments.
Excerpts from briefs filed in sales tax case
“Confusion has been created by virtue of the fact that one version of the proposed initiative was attached to the petition sheets while a substantially different version was simultaneously posted on the secretary’s website.” — brief filed for Secretary of State Ken Bennett.
“By attaching the complete copy of the initiative to the petition’s signature sheets, no voter confusion exists.” — brief filed for three volunteer petition circulators.
“Of course, any difference of the fiscal impact is, by definition, significant from a voter perspective. This fact alone should end the court’s inquiry.” — Bennett brief.
“Voters will never know the difference. Not only is the discrepancy insignificant enough that it did not warrant mention in the 100-word petition summary or the Legislative Council analysis, but there is abundant time to direct the secretary to print only the correct text and (the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s) already completed analysis.” — brief filed for initiative campaign.
“Voters deserve a process that ensures the initiative process is secure, transparent and reliable.” — brief filed for Senate President Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, and House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden.
“If the courts were unduly exacting about procedure, they would risk undercutting the important purpose behind the initiative power.” — brief filed by Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) Inc.
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