Sat, Sept. 21

Challenge contends sales tax ballot language 'false and misleading'

PHOENIX -- Backers of a proposed permanent 1-cent hike in state sales taxes asked the state Supreme Court Wednesday to reject how Secretary of State Ken Bennett proposes to describe their measure on the ballot.

Attorney Jim Barton contends that Bennett is acting illegally in saying that Proposition 204 "permanently increases the state sales tax by one cent per dollar,' effective this coming June. Barton wants the state's high court to rule that is "false and misleading.'

But Barton could have an uphill fight.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Rea rejected these identical arguments just a week ago. He said while the language is not perfectly neutral "is not arbitrary or unquestionably inaccurate.'

And Rea is not shy about deciding such issues: He previously ruled that a legislative panel was biased in how it described the exact same measure in a pamphlet being mailed to voters.

The heart of the fight is over the words "permanently increases.'

What is clear that Proposition 204 would implement a permanent one-cent hike on the state's 5.6 percent tax rate. The measure would divide up the money among various programs, mostly for K-12 education but also with cash for universities, health care for children and road construction.

Initiative proponents note, however, Arizonans already are paying 6.6 percent, the result of a 2010 voter-approved temporary hike to generate close to $1 billion a year. And the new tax, if approved, would not kick in until June 1, the day after the old one expires.

State law charges Bennett with crafting a description of not more than 50 words the effect of "yes' and "no' votes, with that appearing on the actual ballot.

Barton wants the court to rewrite that description to instead say Proposition 204 "establishes a one percent transaction privilege tax.' And, among other wording changes, he wants it spelled out that approval of the initiative would maintain the sales tax at its current rate.

But Assistant Attorney General Michele Forney wants the Supreme Court to leave Rea's ruling undisturbed. She said the language Bennett crafted "accurately states the essential change in the existing law and summarizes the principal provisions of the measure.'

This lawsuit parallels a similar challenge to language adopted by the Legislative Council explaining Proposition 204 for the ballot pamphlet mailed to voters. In that case, both Rea and the high court said the way the Republican-dominated panel described the measure as an "increase' was biased.

Members of the Legislative Council are set to meet Thursday to adopt revised language. House Speaker Andy Tobin said late Wednesday he did not have a final version available for review.

This is actually the third lawsuit filed by initiative backers. Aside from the fights over how it is described, proponents had to get a court order overruling Bennett's conclusion that the measure could not be on the ballot because a pre-filed copy of the initiative did not match what had been circulated.

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