Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Bennett should let voters decide education tax issue

Secretary of State Ken Bennett should drop his appeal of a court ruling allowing an attempt to renew a 1-cent sales tax increase to be on the November ballot and let voters decide the issue.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good public policy and should be passed. It shouldn’t.

Not because it’s a bad idea – adequately funding public education should be among the state’s top priorities – but because it’s bad budgeting.

Voters in 2010 approved a temporary 1-cent per dollar increase to the state sales tax with the intent that the money would be used to forestall cuts to education funding during the recession-caused budget crisis. The tax sunsets at the end of May unless voters agree to extend it.

Yet the new proposal, which if it makes the ballot will be called Proposition 204, is not really an extension of what voters approved two years ago. The new tax is an entirely new law with prohibitions against legislative raiding. In fact, the law would mandate where the money be spent and in what priority, starting with K-12 education.

Bennett is trying to keep it off the ballot over a specious claim that the initiative’s proponents failed to file paperwork with the correct ballot language on it.

They gave Bennett a paper copy of the initiative language and an electronic copy. But the paper copy was wrong; it lacked several paragraphs detailing other spending priorities after education (only if there’s enough money to go around, though). The electronic copy was right. No one, not even Bennett, knew the language petitioners were signing on to was different than the “official” copy filed with Bennett until an anti-tax group pointed it out some months into the signature gathering process. It was too late to start over so proponents turned in the signatures, nearly 300,000 of them, about 10 percent of the state’s registered voters, anyway because their intent was clear, the language on the petition was correct.

In other words, petition signers knew what they were signing.

In times past, ridiculous ministerial errors, such as the type size being too big, were enough for a judge to bounce a petition. But lately, more judges have been willing to give greater weight to voter intent rather than some petty bureaucratic rule about process.

Bennett is essentially correct when he says the rules have to be followed but he would have firmer ground to stand on if the tax’s proponents had tried to hoodwink him or petition signers with some kind of 11th hour switcheroo.

They didn’t and he’s wrong to assert that some kind of unrectifiable voter confusion has been created because a copy of the language on file with his office is different than what petitioners signed.

Even if the state Supreme Court agrees with him, it’s still wrong to deny the 300,000 people who signed the petition the right to have it on the ballot. Their intent was clear.

Voters should be given a chance to decide whether they want to continue to tax themselves and tie that revenue tightly to education funding.

Why that’s a bad idea is different argument best left for another day (such as after the court allows it on the ballot).

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