PHOENIX - An error by backers of a permanent 1-cent increase in the state sales tax for education and public-works projects could keep voters from getting a chance to decide the measure in November.
Tucsonan Ann-Eve Pedersen, organizer of the measure, acknowledged Tuesday that the paper version of the initiative prefiled with the Secretary of State's Office, as required by law, is different from the one being circulated on the street. Those are the petitions she intends to file next week.
But Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Bennett, said his boss intends to turn her away, effectively killing the initiative. He said his office has no choice.
Roberts said state law requires the petitions on the street to be identical in every respect to the one prefiled with his office.
Pedersen said a correct version was prefiled with Bennett's office at the same time as the incorrect paper one - on a computer disk. Roberts, however, said that's legally irrelevant.
"The official filing is the paper copy," he said. "It's stamped, it is filed with our office, and they are supplied with a copy that serves as a receipt. And that's according to statute."
Pedersen called the error "clerical" and said her group will challenge any effort by Bennett to reject the 260,000 signatures she says she has - far more than the 172,809 required - and keep the measure off the ballot.
"The law in this case is on our side," she said. "We're confident that no one is going to thwart the will of more than a quarter-million Arizona voters."
Voters approved a temporary 1-cent increase in the state's 5.6 percent sales tax in 2010 to help balance the budget. That levy self-destructs at the end of May 2013.
This initiative effectively would keep the money coming. But unlike the 2010 measure, it has specific places where the cash would go.
Out of the first $1 billion collected, about half would go to public education without strings. There is additional cash tied to certain performance measures like test scores, third-grade reading proficiencies and graduation rates. And there is $100 million for construction projects such as new roads, in order to create jobs.
The initiative language also includes a breakdown of how to spend the excess - up to $550 million - if more than $1 billion is raised in any year.
The problem is that the version on the street then earmarks up to $250 million above that first $1.55 billion for universities, including scholarships, and another $100 million for the construction. But that language is not in the paper version that was prefiled.
Kevin McCarthy, executive director of the Arizona Tax Research Association, which opposes the initiative, found the flaw and called it to Bennett's attention.
Roberts said Bennett cannot accept the petitions that markedly differ from what was filed with the office in March.
"That's different than a typo or a margin error or something like that," Roberts said. "That seems like a significant difference."
That's also McCarthy's assessment.
"It's nowhere close to being a minor change," he said, with the difference affecting how $350 million a year would be spent.
Pedersen did not dispute the requirement that the law requires a copy of the initiative to be prefiled with the secretary of state or that the copy be identical to what is circulated.
But Pedersen said the Arizona Constitution requires only that citizen initiatives be in "substantial compliance" with the law. And she argued that the filing of an accurate copy - albeit on disk - meets that definition.
Roberts, however, said that ignores the fact that the printed version, as the official one, is posted on his agency's website.
"The reason why these things are posted on our website is to offer the public an opportunity to examine these initiatives before they sign them," he said.
Arizona law does require a copy of initiatives to be attached to petitions so would-be signers can review them and know what they are being asked to endorse. Pedersen said the copies that were attached to all petitions are accurate versions of the measure.
But the opportunity to review the full language at the time of signing is normally not the same thing as actually reading what ended up as 14 pages of single-spaced wording, not counting the cover sheet.
McCarthy said if Bennett allows the petitions to be filed that will not be the last word. He said foes of the initiative would then file their own lawsuit to keep the measure off the ballot.
Pedersen is already girding for a legal fight: Her group has retained former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman.
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