Proponents of education sales tax file suit over description of ballot measure - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Proponents of education sales tax file suit over description of ballot measure

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Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 4:32 pm

Backers of an extension of the state's sales tax surcharge filed a new lawsuit Wednesday, this one over how their measure is being described to voters.

The legal papers claim that the Legislative Council, composed of lawmakers from both parties, ignored their requirement to adopt "an impartial analysis'' of the initiative. That analysis becomes part of the materials sent to voters ahead of the November election.

Instead, attorney James Barton said the lawmakers -- or, at least the Republicans who control the panel -- crafted a description "calculated to cause voters to vote against the Quality Education and Jobs Act.'' And he wants Maricopa County Superior Court Judge George Foster to order the lawmakers to go back and rewrite the analysis.

The new lawsuit comes as the Arizona Supreme Court on Wednesday set the stage for deciding whether the measure goes on the ballot at all.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett had said the petitions are invalid because the version pre-filed with his office was different than the one attached to the petitions signed by about 290,000 people. Last week a trial judge, ruling on a lawsuit brought by Pedersen's group, said Bennett was wrong, leading him to appeal to the high court.

Voters approved a temporary one-cent hike in the state's 5.6 percent sales tax rate in 2010 as part of a plan to plug a $3 billion hole in the budget. The measure has raised more than $900 million each year.

The balance was made up through a combination of spending cuts and borrowing.

That levy self-destructs at the end of this coming May.

This initiative would extend that 6.6 percent tax rate permanently, dedicating the proceeds to a variety of programs. While most would go to K-12 education, there also are funds for university scholarships and operation, road construction and health care for the children of the working poor.

Barton said the Legislative Council members described the levy as a tax "increase.'' That, he said, is false.

"If the Quality Education and Jobs Act passes, the Arizona sales tax rate will stay the same as it is the day the voters make their selection,'' he wrote in his legal briefs.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, who chairs the initiative, acknowledged the measure would be an increase if someone considers first the expiration of the existing temporary levy. But she said that does not excuse what lawmakers are doing.

"What we ask is that this reflect that this will pick up at the expiration of that tax,'' Pedersen said. Without such clarification, she said, someone could read the description "and think that it is on top of that'' one-cent surcharge.

But Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said it is an increase.

The key, he said, is that the 2010 levy left intact existing state laws which set the base state sales tax at 5.6 percent. Instead, it was promoted to voters as a one-cent surcharge -- and a temporary one at that which goes away if voters do nothing at all.

"What these people are arguing for is (that) this merely is a continuation'' of the current tax, he said. "And that is not precise.''

He said this is a totally new tax.

"And because it is in perpetuity, it is an effective base-rate increase of 18 percent'' above the 5.6 percent rate, Biggs said.

Barton said even if that's the case, the ballot description should provide that context to voters.

"Otherwise, describing a change in sales tax from 6.6 percent to 6.6 percent as an increase is false and biased,'' he wrote.

Pedersen said there are other flaws in the description adopted by lawmakers which appear designed to sway voters to reject the measure, including a statement about funding for scholarships that the initiative "fails to define who qualifies as a 'resident' for purposes of the scholarship.''

She said that appears to be designed to suggest to voters that illegal immigrants who live in Arizona might get some of the money.

But Pedersen said that clearly is not true, pointing out that existing state law already defines who is a "resident'' and entitled to in-state tuition. And that definition, approved by voters in 2004, excludes those who are not in the country legally.

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