Arizona Supreme Court explains education tax ruling

PHOENIX (AP) — A trial judge misconstrued an earlier court ruling when he blocked a voter initiative over the summer that the state Supreme Court later revived, the high court said in a Monday ruling that explained its reasons for reinstating the Invest in Education Act to the November ballot.

The high court said the judge went much further than it intended in a 2018 ruling that blocked a similar initiative from appearing on that year's ballot.

The Supreme Court said Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Coury erred when he said the 100-word summary on petitions voters signed inaccurately described the measure. The court also upheld Coury's finding that a petition circulation company violated a law that bans paying petition gatherers per signature, but that not enough signatures were affected to keep the measure off the ballot.

The unanimous ruling written by Vice Chief Justice Ann Scott Timmer also sought to clarify the court's guidance on the short summary voters see when they sign petitions to qualify a measure for the ballot.

She noted that sponsors, opponents and courts have struggled with a law that says that summary must contain the “principal provisions” of a measure, leading to repeated court fights. She went on to lay out a new and simpler legal standard.

That standard defines “principal” as the most important, consequential and most primary features.

“They are not all provisions,” Timmer wrote. “The 100-word description serves as the ‘elevator pitch’ that alerts prospective signatories to the measure’s key operative provisions, enabling them to decide in short order whether to sign the petition, refuse to do so, or make further inquiry about the measure.”

Courts can then move on to decide if the summary accurately lays out those principal provisions. It should only disqualify a measure if the summary “either communicates objectively false or misleading information or obscures the principal provisions’ basic thrust.,” Timmer wrote.

And courts should not take expert testimony from both sides to see if a description is clear.

“Reasonable people can differ about the best way to describe a principal provision, but a court should not enmesh itself in such quarrels,” she wrote. “If the chosen language would alert a reasonable person to the principal provisions’ general objectives, that is sufficient."

The unanimous Aug. 19 ruling the court explained Monday was a major victory for proponents of the initiative who turned in signatures from more than 400,000 voters to qualify it for the ballot.

It will go before voters on Nov. 3 as Proposition 208.

Backers of the Invest in Education Act see it as a way to pump about $940 million a year into the state’s underfunded school system. The proposed initiative is backed by many educators and the state teachers union. It would impose a 3.5% tax surcharge on income above $250,000 for an individual or above $500,000 for couples.

The measure is opposed by a group in large part funded by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

They argue the higher tax will hurt Arizona's economy and small businesses, because many business owners pay taxes on profits on their individual income tax returns.

If approved by a majority of voters, half of the new tax will be used for raises for credentialed teachers, 25% to boosting wages for cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other support staff, and the rest for teacher training, vocational education and other initiatives.

The initiative was the latest outgrowth from a teachers strike two years ago that highlighted low wages for educators and a slow rebound from budget cuts enacted during the Great Recession. The walkout secured higher wages for teachers, but many education interest groups said it fell short.