Ruling allows sales tax hike to go on ballot

An initiative measure for a sales tax increase can appear on Arizona’s ballot this November despite a paperwork error that threatened to kill the proposal before it reached voters, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The brief order issued by a three-justice panel said it was enough that supporters of the initiative “substantially complied” with laws on initiative applications.

Supporters mistakenly filed an incorrect paper copy of their proposal with the state when they launched the initiative petition drive in March. They submitted a correct version on compact disc and attached correct copies to petitions circulated to voters.

The initiative technically hasn’t been certified yet for the ballot, but ongoing checks have already determined that supporters turned in enough petition signatures.

The initiative proposes a penny-on-the-dollar increase to take effect in 2013 upon the expiration of a same-size temporary increase.

The money would be directed to education, transportation projects and programs for children, but the two paragraphs omitted from the paper copy filed with Secretary of State Ken Bennett’s office affected how some of the money would be divided among those purposes.

Public school groups, business alliances, university students and others who support the initiative urged the justices to let the initiative go on the ballot. They said a minor paperwork mistake that was caught in time to prevent confusion shouldn’t thwart voters’ right to use the initiative process to set public policy.

Top Republican legislative leaders, a business-backed taxpayer organization and a conservative advocacy group joined elections officials in saying the initiative should be kept off the ballot because supporters didn’t follow rules that protect the integrity of the initiative process. They argued that the error caused confusion over how the sales tax would work.

Initiative supporters said the paper copy was an outdated version that lacked two paragraphs spelling how some of the sales tax revenue would be spent. They said a worker in the office of a lawyer who helped prepare the initiative printed the wrong copy to be filed.

The error wasn’t noticed until months later, before the circulated petitions were filed but after Bennett’s office posted the incomplete version on its website.

Initiative supporters sued after Bennett in June declared all the petitions invalid because the copies of the initiative attached to petitions didn’t match the paper filing with his office.

A trial judge overturned Bennett’s decision, ruling that the initiative petitions circulated to voters had the intended version of the initiative. Bennett appealed to the Supreme Court.

With the omitted two paragraphs, there would be bigger increases in funding for universities and transportation projects. Without the paragraphs, there’d be larger funding increases for K-12 education and community colleges.

The legislative budget staff said $650 million was at stake over 17 years, out of a total of $25 billion of sales tax revenue during the same period.

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About Michael Gossie

Michael Gossie is an award-winning journalist who has earned more than 50 awards for writing, editing and design. He studied economics at Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y., and put his entrepreneurial spirit to work in 2007, using a 200-year-old family recipe to launch an Italian sauce company. He is a competitive marathon runner, Ironman triathlete and is most proud of being the founding president of the Steuben Arc Foundation in Upstate New York, which serves individuals with developmental disabilities, including his sister.