Battle Continues Over Initiative

Legislature, secretary of state still trying to keep tax for schools off November ballot

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Proponents of Proposition 204 have stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition from the Arizona State Legislature.

Both sides have now turned to the courts to clean up the mess.

It all started when the campaign gathered more 290,000 signatures, or about 10 percent of all Arizona registered voters, to put the measure on the November ballot.

The initiative continues a sales tax established when voters approved Proposition 100 two years ago. Proposition 100 deposited the roughly $1 billion annually in the general fund, which allowed the Legislature to spend the money as it wished — even though the language of Prop. 100 stated those funds would go for education.

This year, the Legislature set aside a major portion of Prop. 100 funds instead of helping schools, justifying its decision by saying the one-cent sales tax will phase out in 2013. Arizona has reduced school funding to 2006 levels and ranks 48th among the states in per-student spending.

As a response, Prop. 204 proponents launched their own initiative to continue the one-cent sales tax and remove the Legislature’s control of the money.

“The people are saying, ‘We can’t trust the Legislature to represent our interests’,” said newly instated Payson Superintendent Ron Hitchcock. “It’s the public saying, ‘You fooled us once, but not again.’”

When Secretary of State Ken Bennett received petitions, he promptly rejected them all over a technicality. He said the campaign’s electronic version of the text of the proposition differed slightly from the printed version.

The Prop. 204 campaign replied that the differences in language did not change the intent of the initiative, so voters understood what they were signing.

Hitchcock went to Phoenix in July to attend the hearing on the Prop. 204 campaign’s effort to overturn Secretary of State Ken Bennett’s decision. Hitchcock said he’s getting quite an education in Arizona politics and law.

The suit accused the secretary of state of violating the will of the voters and the Arizona Constitution.

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Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett

Judge Robert Oberbilling of the Arizona Supreme Court overturned Bennett’s decision within 20 minutes of hearing arguments saying, “I honestly don’t know why we need to be here.” The judge also required the secretary of state’s office to continue qualifying the initiative for the ballot.

Shortly after the decisive victory for Prop. 204, Bennett filed an appeal to the ruling.

“It has left us in legal limbo land,” said Ann-Eve Pedersen, chair of the Quality Education and Jobs Initiative.

Hitchcock said he believes the issue represents political infighting between the legislative and judicial branches of the government.

“It’s political gamesmanship,” said Hitchcock. “With the children in the middle.”

Pedersen said more distressing than the appeal is the fact that both the Legislature and Senate will file amicus briefs backing Bennett.

“This is unusual for one branch of the government to support another like this,” said Pedersen, who used to work as a reporter covering courts.

Hitchcock believes the judge foresaw an appeal. “The judge cited four prior Supreme Court decisions that require the secretary of state to focus on the relevant issue and not on technicalities,” he said.

Now the Prop. 204 campaign believes the Legislature has voted to put misinformation on the voter publicity pamphlet.

In response, the campaign has filed another suit in court alleging the language the Legislature used misleads the public by not making it clear the initiative continues an already existing sales tax, instead of creating a new tax.

In the suit, the campaign claims the language “fails to mention that a yearly $100 million Family Stability Fund must be used by state agencies and non-profits to help prevent homelessness, hunger, family violence, and provide child care,” as well as other misrepresentations regarding the purposes of the initiative.

Calls to the secretary of state’s office were not returned.

The proponents of Prop. 204 remain optimistic.

“We’re moving forward to put this on the ballot,” said Pedersen.

Secretary of State Bennett also gleaned national headlines earlier this year when he suggested he might not let President Barrack Obama’s name go on the Arizona ballot unless Hawaii could provide a copy of his birth certificate. Commentators suggested the widely criticized move was intended to appeal to conservative Republicans who have questions the President’s citizenship. Bennett backed away from the request when a furor resulted.

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