Ken Bennett: clerical error trumps groundwell

Arizona Republic
Saturday, June 30, 2012
Laurie Roberts

A Tea Party activist asks Secretary of State Ken Bennett to check into Barack Obama’s birth certificate and Bennett springs into action, launching an investigation.

"This,” he said, “is a constituent from Arizona, whom I work for.”

Nearly 300,000 constituents ask Bennett to put a sales tax initiative on the ballot and once again Bennett springs into action, launching all 19,071 petitions into the trash.

“The initiative lacks sufficient valid signature sheets to qualify for the ballot,” Bennett wrote this week, just hours after 60 boxes of petitions were hauled into his office.

It seems 290,849 Arizonans are trumped by one clerical error.

One thing I’ll say for Bennett. This guy who hopes to be our next governor has a displayed an uncanny knack of late for making himself a household name.

The drive to put the Quality Education and Jobs initiative on the ballot kicked off in March, after it became clear that the Legislature wasn’t coming to the rescue.

In the coming year, schools will see 12 percent less in state funding than they would have, had our leaders not taken a chainsaw to public education in recent years, according to a legislative budget analysis. That’s a loss of $680 million, or $650 per student.

And so comes the proposal to make permanent the temporary 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax that expires next year. This, to fund schools, universities, highways and children’s health.

Few gave the backers of this initiative much of a chance, given that they waited so late to begin collecting the 172,809 signatures needed.

Instead this proposal drew more signatures than any statutory initiative ever filed, according to supporters. Think Glendale and Flagstaff combined and that’s how many of Bennett’s constituents asked him to put this proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot.

But there was a hitch.

The version of the initiative seen by all those petition signers didn’t match the paper version submitted to Bennett's office. It did, however, match the electronic version submitted at the same time. But Bennett’s office deemed the paper version the “full and correct” copy of the initiative.

Bennett’s spokesman, Matt Roberts, acknowledges that there’s nothing in the law actually says the paper version must be the official version. That’s just the way the office has always done things.

“We deal with hundreds of initiatives over the years and in every instance it’s the paper copy that we put online. We scan it and it has to be date stamped,’’ Roberts said. “It would be difficult to date stamp a CD.”

Kevin McCarthy is executive director of the Arizona Tax Research Association, the outfit that spotted the discrepancy a few weeks ago while doing opposition research. The error may be clerical, he says, but it’s substantial.

The version deemed official by Bennett is missing the paragraph that directs what McCarthy estimates could be up to $600 million to university and highway projects over 15 years, in the event tax revenues exceed a certain level.

So would people have declined to sign the petition had they, by some miracle, gone to the secretary of state’s website and not seen the provision that some of the money could go not to K-12 schools but elsewhere, primarily to universities?

That seems a stretch but McCarthy says that’s not the issue. The precedent, he says, is the issue.

“Before people just give this a free pass and say no harm no foul and yeah, they’ve got the 290,000 signatures, I think we should ask ourselves if we would have the same opinion if it was another group …,” he said “Whether it was for medical marijuana or the tobacco industry messing with the tobacco tax or if it was the utility industry wanting to get rid of the solar requirements that they are burdened with?”

That’s a fair question, one the courts will have to sort out as they consider whether a clerical error should negate a groundswell.

I have concerns about this initiative, having seen what happens to state government when voters put a wall around certain programs, leaving others to bear the brunt of budget cuts. But the answer isn’t to block a ballot the initiative.

The answer lies in electing different state leaders, people who understand that we need quality schools if we are ever to become a place with decent jobs and thriving industry based on something other than building houses.

How sad that our leaders don’t seem to grasp that.

And sadder still, that 290,000 voters who do can be so easily dismissed.